“Call me an unreconstructed heathen, but the sooner we get back to a national diet of chips with gravy and that sort of thing, the happier I will be. In my day every restaurant meal started with prawn cocktail and finished with Black Forest gateau and we were all a lot happier, believe me.”
Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain
Nothing transports one back to the 1970s quite like prawn cocktail, that ubiquitous appetizer that everyone denigrates yet secretly loves. You may find it odd that I include this as a British recipe, since shrimp cocktail is widely served in the United States. Well, first of all, it’s prawn cocktail, because you will almost never hear the word “shrimp” uttered in Britain, at least not in relation to seafood. Also important is the accompaniment known as Marie Rose Sauce, which is nowhere to be found in the Americas. Online, you will find many attributing the sauce to Fanny Cradock, a British TV cook and writer who famously cooked in ballgowns because she thought it would make cooking less intimidating to women. Why she thought that is still unclear.
In her wonderful book Taste: The Story of Britain through its Cooking, Kate Colquhoun points us in a different direction, saying that it was Marguerite Patten, a “modest” home economist, whose best-selling book Cookery in Colour (1960) contained a recipe for prawn cocktail with a sauce of ketchup and salad cream.
At any rate, Marie Rose Sauce stays with us, and despite its close resemblance to Thousand Island dressing (without the chunky bits), it is entirely unique, and absolutely essential. The other difference you might notice is that this version of prawn cocktail is served more like a salad than its American cousin.
- 1 lb raw prawns (shrimp), peeled and deveined
- Eight large leaves Bibb lettuce, torn into bite-sized pieces
- (you can also substitute cucumber slices)
- Lemon wedges
- 3/4 cup mayonnaise
- 3 Tbsp ketchup
- 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tsp lemon juice
- Add sauce ingredients to a bowl and mix well.
- Bring saucepan of water to boil over medium heat.
- Add prawns and lower heat, simmering until prawns are just cooked through, approximately 2-3 minutes.
- Drain prawns and let cool slightly. Season with salt and pepper.
- Arrange lettuce pieces on small individual serving plates or in wide-mouthed cocktail glasses.
- Divide shrimp equally and place on top of lettuce.
- Drizzle Marie Rose sauce generously over prawns and lettuce and garnish with a lemon wedge.
Note: Those wanting a little extra zing in their sauce can add a dash or two of Tabasco or a teaspoon of horseradish.