This classic prawn cocktail recipe makes my take on the retro appetiser popularised in the 1970s that will never go out of style. Tiger prawns boiled quickly in their shells so they’re just done are peeled, tossed in a creamy tangy ‘seafood sauce’, and served on a bed of lettuce salad, dressed with the same sauce.
So many fashionable dishes from the 1970s have made a comeback in recent years – devilled eggs, beef Stroganoff and chicken Kiev to name a few (oddly enough, all Russian dishes, and I’ve no idea what that’s about). Along with the prawn cocktail, they’ve never gone out of style for me, because they’re part of my culinary heritage, embedded with countless memories.
As a child growing up in Sydney’s suburbs in the Seventies, the prawn cocktail was as much a part of our Australian summer culinary traditions as the pavlova, riverside picnics, backyard barbecues, and fish and chips by the beach.
Prawn cocktails magically appeared before me at the fancy harbourside restaurants at many a Sunday lunch while my parents and friends were still perusing menus and the waiter was popping bottles of bubbly. They did their job, keeping me occupied until the oysters arrived.
Before I tell you more about this classic prawn cocktail recipe, if you’re looking for recipes for the holidays, you might also like to browse this compilation of our best cocktail recipes and best dip recipes for crackers and crudités for festive parties. We’ll add more holiday recipes between now and January.
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Now let’s tell you about this classic prawn cocktail recipe.
Classic Prawn Cocktail Recipe for the Retro Starter that Never Goes Out of Style
My classic prawn cocktail recipe makes one of our best prawn recipes. It’s my take on the retro appetiser popularised in the 1970s that will never go out of fashion. Tiger prawns, boiled quickly in their shells so they’re just done, are peeled, tossed in a creamy tangy seafood sauce, and served on a bed of lettuce salad, also dressed with the same sauce.
Prawn cocktails featured on our table on Christmas Day and other holiday meals when my parents indulged in a bounty of fresh seafood, at home or away, on road trips up the east coast, staying in beachside caravan parks.
On Christmas Day, we sweated over a lunch of roasts and veggies and steamed pudding at my Australian grandparents’ home, then Christmas dinner at my Russian grandparents, where we stuffed ourselves with eggs and caviar, Russian pelmeni and vareniki, and cabbage rolls. Some years, more sensibly, those meals were spread over Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
While I loved the hearty food of both grandmothers, not to mention seeing my cousins from the countryside at nan and pop’s, and my young uncles and their girlfriends at baba and papa’s, like my mum, who wasn’t a fan of hot meals at the height of Australia’s sweltering summer, I relished the seafood feasts at home.
Of all the seafood mum and dad prepared, which always included an abundance of oysters made three ways – natural, kilpatrick and mornay – the prawn cocktails we created, more generously sized than the restrained bowls at restaurants, were my favourite.
There always seemed to be a mountain of boiled fresh prawns, which my parents delighted in spending hours shelling, sipping glasses of chilled wine or downing icy cold beers in between, eating more than they put in the big Pyrex bowl that the prawns were meant to go in.
As a small child, I was an expert in shelling prawns long before I learnt to make chocolate crackles, trifles and cheese straws. But my main task was to prepare the seafood sauce that was a key component of the classic prawn cocktail recipe.
That seafood sauce, also known as Russian dressing, couldn’t have been easier to make: it was simply equal parts mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, which Australians call tomato sauce. That was it. Easy.
Why was the seafood sauce also called Russian dressing? I can’t say for certain, however, mayonnaise and tomato sauce have long been the favourite condiments of Russians. Mayonnaise in particular, which Russians joke runs through their veins.
Mayonnaise was introduced to Russian imperial cuisine by the French chefs who helmed palace kitchens across Europe, as was the fashion at the time. Homemade tomato sauces had always been a feature of traditional Russian food, smothering everything from cabbage rolls to meat balls, long before tomato ketchup was sold in bottles.
I guess it was inevitable the two sauces would be combined to create a seafood salad dressing if a Russian had anything to do with it.
Of course, a classic prawn cocktail recipe of the 1970s that made the kind of prawn cocktail we ate at Sydney restaurants was probably made with the Marie Rose sauce, an English seafood condiment served with prawn cocktails in the United Kingdom that included the additions of Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice.
The seafood sauce in my classic prawn cocktail recipe is somewhere between the Marie Rose sauce, tartare sauce and that simple seafood sauce of my childhood. Just a few quick tips to making my take on the classic prawn cocktail recipe.
Tips to Making this Classic Prawn Cocktail Recipe
I only have a few quick tips to making this classic prawn cocktail recipe as it’s super easy and should come together in less than 30 minutes.
Buy fresh raw prawns rather than cooked prawns. Jumbo tiger prawns are best for their vibrant colour, plump form and sweet taste. Briefly boil the prawns in their shells until they’re just cooked so they remain firm and flavourful.
It’s so important not to over-cook the prawns. You really don’t want soft mushy prawns. For that reason, I don’t butterfly the prawns to remove the prawn ‘poop’. If you want to do that, use a toothpick or tweezers to tug it out.
I boil the prawns in a large pot, even if I’m only doing a small number of prawns, so I can be certain they’ve floating to the top and are ready. Then I quickly scoop them out using a slotted spoon, as they can over-cook very quickly. I then drop them into a bowl of iced water so they stop cooking.
Remove the heads and shells at this point, but leave tails on 2-3 prawns per bowl so you can arrange them attractively. I usually opt for two prawns if prepping prawn cocktails for two of us but you could go for three.
For the seafood sauce, use a good quality tomato sauce (ketchup) and mayonnaise – or make your own.
I love fresh fragrant dill – that’s my Russian showing – but you could always use fresh coriander or basil, even mint, or a combination of all three.
Traditionally, the classic prawn cocktail recipe calls for lemons, but we prefer the taste of limes, which also happen to be easier for us to source and more affordable here, but by all means garnish with lemon.
A good drizzle of lime or lemon juice before digging in really makes a prawn cocktail for me.
Classic Prawn Cocktail Recipe
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 12 large fresh raw tiger prawns - shells on
- 4 tbsp mayonnaise
- 4 tbsp tomato sauce - (ketchup)
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 small purple shallot - finely diced
- 2 chives - finely sliced
- 1 spring onion/scallion - green part only, finely sliced
- ½ tsp ground paprika
- ½ tsp ground chilli powder
- ½ tsp sea salt
- ½ tsp white pepper
- 1 tsp fresh dill - finely chopped
- 1 small lettuce - little gem or iceberg
- 1 lime - for garnishing
- 1 tsp fresh dill sprigs - for garnishing
- In a large pot, bring 3 litres of water to the boil, add a tablespoon of lemon juice, then drop the whole tiger prawns into the pot. As soon as the prawns rise to the surface they’re ready, so use a slotted spoon to scoop them out and drop them in a bowl of iced water. Leave them for a couple of minutes so they stop cooking, then drain them.
- Carefully remove all the shells of 8 prawns, taking care not to damage them, by first removing the heads, then legs, then body of the shell, and tails of all but 4 prawns. If you wish to de-vein the prawns, use a toothpick or tweezers to tug out the poop; don’t slice the prawns down their backs. If messy from the juices from the heads, rinse the prawns quickly under cold running water, pat them dry, put them in a clean bowl, and refrigerate them.
- In a small bowl, make the seafood sauce by stirring the mayonnaise and tomato sauce (ketchup) until combined, then add the lemon juice, finely diced purple shallot, spices and seasoning, and finely sliced chives and spring onions/scallions, and finely chopped fresh dill, stir until well-combined, then refrigerate.
- Wash the lettuce leaves, pat them dry, then arrange the leaves in cocktail glasses or glass bowls, so they line the bowl and prettily protrude over the edges.
- Finely slice or shred the remaining lettuce leaves, transfer to a bowl, and combine with half the seafood sauce. Scoop this out with a spoon and divide between the cocktail glasses or bowls so that it almost fills them.
- Chop all of the prawns, except the 4 prawns with tails, into large chunky pieces, combine with the remaining seafood sauce, and pile them onto the salad. Arrange the last 2 prawns with tails attractively on top of them, then sprinkle on fresh dill sprigs and serve immediately with quarters of limes or lemons.
Please do let us know in the comments below if you make our prawn cocktail recipe, as we’d love to know how it turns out for you.