In everyday Japanese, ebi prawns or shrimp refers to any number of sea- or river-dwelling edible 10-legged crustaceans. The variety is astonishing. Ama-ebi literally, the ‘sweet prawn’ is a speciality of Toyama, Fukui and Niigata Prefectures, where it is never far from the menu. It's biological name is the hokkoku-ebi, 'North country prawn'. Best raw, it can’t be found in Kanto. Its sweetness and soft-shelled texture doesn’t appeal to all tastes.
The botan-ebi is a good winter shrimp, the color of peony flowers ‘botan’ means peony, taken south of Hokkaido’s Uchiura Bay and down into Tohoku from October to May. It is also sometimes called Toyama-ebi. Born male, it later turns female, and is best, regardless of gender, as sashimi.
Shibaebi is a greyish white shrimp, caught in Tokyo bay’s Shibaura, hence the name. It is excellent for tempura, sushi topping and sunomono.
To find the large kuruma-ebi tiger prawns in nature, hunt carefully on the Pacific coast, or on the Japan Sea coast south of Aomori, though few remain in the wild. Larger specimens up to 20 cm are grilled, and fried in the popular ebi-furai, but smaller ones known as maki are used in tempura and as sashimi.
Ise-ebi Japanese spiny lobster, or craw fish is the king of Japan's aquatic shellfish. Traditionally taken in Ise Bay, Mie and off the coastlines of Mie and Wakayama Prefectures, and eaten at New Year as it has along beard and curved back, symbolizing long life. A tasty, expensive treat, ise-ebi is good as sashimi, yakimono, nimono, furai, and in salad.
The cute sakura-ebi cherry shrimp, just 3cm to 4cm long, is best from mid-spring to late spring when it is used as sashimi, or dried. Once caught by the boat load in Suruga Bay off Shizuoka, pollution has all but killed it off.
The enormous Taisho-ebi Taisho prawn also known as the Korai-ebi Korean prawn is now caught in the East China Sea and imported frozen. It is not as good as kuruma-ebi, but it is large up to 27 cm, and cheap, often featuring in lunchtime teishoku set menus. It was first eaten in the Taisho period, which must make it the world’s only crustacean named after a historical time span.
Prawns grilled on a shichirin charcoal burner, outdoors, then served hot dipped into a sauce of lemon, salt and pepper are fabulous.