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Shrimp Heads

  • d

people seem to love "head on" shrimp. i used to only see this in bangkok - but now it's getting popular here in the states.

i don't get it.

do you suck the head - like crawfish. or do you eat the whole thing - eyes and all? i just don't know what to do with the head and so i cut it off and eat the body. if you know how this is supposed to be eaten - please advise! thank you.

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  1. dtud, I eat these little gems at my favorite sushi place. They are crunchy, tasty and a great snack. The long tentaciles act as natural floss while you're eating. (If you eat a handful at a time, you look like the Caveman in the Geico ads.) Try them, you'll be a convert to Krill heads in no time.

    1. If you've ever had the Chinese dish, spicy salt and pepper shrimp, you'd eat the whole shrimp from head to tail (assuming the dish was prepared properly). If you haven't, and love shrimp, you need to try this dish.

      Many sushi and izakaya houses serve the body of the fresh shrimp raw, then use the head portion in soups, or deep-fry it to be eaten whole as well. Again, if you truly love the flavor of shrimp, you'll enjoy the head if the dish is done properly.

      2 Replies
      1. re: bulavinaka

        Happy Seven, here in Toronto, is one of my favourite lunch spots. I mean to try other dishes, and sometimes manage. But salt and spicy shrimp (4.99 CDN) is always on the board. Crunchy, tasty, good. And a good source of calcium.

        1. re: bulavinaka

          i only really started eating the heads recently and even then i'll pretty much only eat them when crispy fried otherwise it's just difficult! they become a bit thick and slippery and the crunch makes it easier to breakdown.

          love it though.. it's all just a whole lot of extra flavour. there's a reason why you use bones and shells to make a good stock!

          haven't had it raw though off of sweet shrimp but i also don't ever recall receiving it that way.

        2. My husband just sucks out the fat from the head, but I eat the whole thing. Great source of calcium.

          4 Replies
          1. re: Miss Needle

            Calcium? I think that the head is it is mostly chitin, which has no nutritional benefits.

            1. re: JMF

              Shrimp shell has calcium in addition to chitin. Chitin actually has many benefits such as wound healing and fat-binding properties. Check this article out:


              1. re: Miss Needle

                I know about purified chitins (especially the highly refined form, chitosan) health benefits, but I am pretty sure that in the unrefined chitin they are not digestible or available as nutrition since chitin is basically inert . Also I think it takes drying and a mild chemical process to release the nutrients from the chitin. It takes relatively high heat, higher than the body creates, and low moisture for the demineralization and deproteinization to occur. Also it needs to be processed with acid and alkaline, as well as catalyzed by enzymes called chitinases in order to remove the protein and calcium. Also as far as I know the available calcium in chitin is in the range of 0.01%, with 95% being chitin, most calcium from marine sources is from oyster and other hard shell creatures.

                Do you know of any research that shows unrefined chitin as being a source for the health benefits and that there is readily available and digestible calcium?

                It would be great to see some research about health benefits due to eating shrimp shells, since I eat them all the time.

                1. re: JMF

                  Sorry I don't have any academic research about unrefined chitin and their health benefits. In terms of shrimp shells and calcium, I have not been able to locate a source that tells you what the percentage of calcium is in shrimp shells.

                  In terms of whether you feel shrimp shells have any health benefits for you personally, I think people sometimes need to listen to their bodies. I'm not knocking research (I used to do research), but people sometimes make their decisions based on research only to do a 180 when that research is debunked (eg. chocolate, coffee, margerine).

          2. jfood does not eat the head, the exterior or the tail of a shrimp. it's meat only for him.

            sitting at a sushi bar for lunch in NYC in the mid 80's a few Aussies sat down next to him and started ordering. the chef placed a live shrimp on each on their plates. Each lifted the live shrimp over their respective head, said something about the shrimps heritage (the shrimp seemed agitated so jfood assumes it was nasty) and then shoved the live, wiggling shrimp in their mouths and bit it off at the tail. Needless to say lunch was over for jfood.

            to this day that scene remains embedded in jfood's mind. now he peels, cleans and cooks all his shrimp (meat only).

            3 Replies
            1. re: jfood

              I made an account just to make this comment. Yes, it is almost four years late but no one else has done it and I feel someone should. Jfood, why the hell are you writing in the third person?? Upon reading it, my brain exploded and nothing is intact. AT ALL.

              1. re: naferitt

                jfood has insightful intelligent posts that contribute much to this board. So what if he writes in the 3rd person - who cares? I actually like it.

                1. re: naferitt

                  That's quite some life you got going there.


              2. The main reason I'm always on the lookout for "heads on" is they are usually fresh, as in not previously frozen. Fresh shrimp have a sweetness and texture that frozen shrimp rarely possess. Once you have them fresh, frozen will never be the same!

                1 Reply
                1. In my part of the states, head-on shrimp are common. NOLA style BBQ shrimp (which are baked in the oven or sauteed on the stovetop) always taste best when head-on. I don't eat the heads, too hard-spiny for me, but I do think they impart great flavor and will use 'em to make shrimp stock.

                  1. If you like the taste of shrimp then the heads will be a treat. I love them at sushi places and izakayas when they are deep fried after i get the body raw. The same with aji. They are so full of heady goodness. I love em. These are like the ultimate shrimp crackers.

                    If the shrimp are not fried i usually just suck the brains out.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: MVNYC

                      Ah, yes, arguably the better half of a sweet shrimp order. I like your "ultimate shrimp cracker" phrase. Sometimes it's awkward getting all the longish tentacles into one's mouth in one quick, discreet motion. I have been accused of resembling a donkey eating cactus.

                    2. I like to buy fresh shrimp with heads on, but would never eat the head or the shell or the tail- it has the same consistancy as plastic! The heads are great for making stock though...

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Clarkafella

                        Not when it is deep fried. It becomes crispy and cracker like. As to how to deal with the tentacles, i nibble them off before going after the rest of the head.

                      2. I enjoy eating the heads themselves when they are either naturally tender when unfried (usually but not necessarily with the smaller shrimp) or of a nice and crispy texture when perfectly fried. They are indeed tasty and worth eating. It is my suspicion too that the head quickly goes bad unless the shrimp is really fresh or is quick frozen, and so the absence of the head is a warning that the shrimp may not be as fresh.

                        The latter, I think, has a strong cultural component to it. There are many traditional cultures both in Europe and in Asia that demands to see the whole product even at the table. For instance with fish that is of a reasonable size I am more comfortable with seeing the whole fish on the plate (or communal serving plate for larger fish) than just seeing a lifeless-looking fillet being served. The same would go for shellfish, either of which is easily perishable.

                        The same goes for the market where I'd like to see the whole fish wherever possible. A fishmonger, or for that matter your typical supermarket fish counter, can hide all sorts of sins by simply filleting his fish and shrink wrapping it. By removing the head one no longer can inspect the eyes or the gills, and by filleting the fish one can no longer see and feel the overall condition of the flesh, and of course with the shrink wrapping one cannot smell the fish either.

                        Not only might there be certain testaments to quality ***implied*** by serving fish and shellfish in their entirety, there's a certain denial of the life that used to be in the foodstuff itself when it is presented already beheaded/filleted/otherwise reformed. In Japanese cooking much is made of the presentation of fish and shellfish, and it is often the case that the fish/shellfish will be somehow shaped or prepped to look alive or at least be in a presentation close to what it may have looked like when alive. (For instance the skewering of tai when baked to look as though it is energetically "flapping", or the reassembling of lobster sashimi back into its shell.) It is not at all uncommon for the presentation to go into the preparation of the plate itself, often with cut vegetables mimicking grasses, flowers, waves, land and sea.

                        So I suspect that many of us who prefer to see the whole shrimp, fish or other shellfish often explicitly or subliminally associates beheaded shrimp or otherwise adulterated fish or shellfish with a plate that is lifeless, lackluster, and perhaps even where shortcuts to freshness have been taken. The exquisite reputation of a source or eatery notwithstanding, I'd usually prefer to see the whole thing on the plate...

                        So no "off with their heads" for me! I'll take care of that at the table...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: cgfan

                          Not to mention that a serving of a half a dozen huge whole grilled shrimp, hanging over all edges of a dinner plate- I'm thinking Venezeula- is a pretty sight.

                        2. AreBe votes with jfood, and he shall tell a true story,

                          Our new Methodist minister professed a love of seafood during his first sermon in Gautier, Mississippi. He and his wife had been invited to a shrimp boil in Biloxi some years earlier, and he warned his wife that sometimes folks round there boil 'em with the heads still on 'em. "Oh, Howard, you're making that up! Why that'd be like frying a chicken with the head still on it." She was stunned to see a head on each boiled shrimp that night.

                          I eat neither chicken heads nor shrimp heads, and when served undecapitated boiled shrimp, removing the head is the first step in the peeling process.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: AreBe

                            CG Fan, you could not have put it more beautifullly. For those same reasons I like going to butcher stores where you see the enitre lamb, goat fowl hanging in the window. i want to see where my meat came from. I do not want cellophaned plastic hunks of flesh. Besides that anything cookd with bones/shells tastes better.

                            As to the chicken heads,like CGFAN said, you know what you are getting. Personally the heads of various animals usually contain some choice pieces. I love the different fish collars/heads served in Japanese restaurants, Fish head curry in Malaysian, gaunciale(pig cheeks), cabeza tacos have the best tasting meat, I could go on and on. This isn't even mentioning how great tongue and brains are.

                            1. re: MVNYC

                              "anything cookd with bones/shells tastes better"

                              MVNYC - well said, and so true. On top of all of the other associations, it's also tastier. Much tastier!

                              I think there's a certain feeling of wholesomeness missing when those of us who prefer to see the "whole" ends up with just a carefully trimmed fillet or otherwise "denatured" presentation. But I wonder if I can put it into words where those that are not so-minded can also get a sense of this difference that we feel.

                              Here's a try... Regardless of how one feels about the presentation of shrimp or fish, I am sure that most can relate to the wholesome feeling when seeing an unpeeled peach, perhaps with a bit of stem and leaf attached. Then contrast this feeling to that of seeing a peach, already skinned and pitted, then diced evenly into nice little cubes, ready for immediate consumption. While perhaps in someways the latter is somewhat prettier, its also somehow less "alive".

                              Not that these are completely comparable situations, I wish to carry this analogy only so far, but the feeling that I get in response to these two presentations comes close to what I feel seeing a whole fish vs. a filleted fish, or whole shrimp vs. headless and peeled shrimp.

                          2. You can do like my friend does. He lines the heads up on the other side of his plate so they are staring at his wife.


                            4 Replies
                            1. re: Davwud

                              <coffee shoots out nose onto keyboard while laughing>

                              The fried heads are tasty. I needed a few flasks of sake to work up the nerve, but am glad I did. It's like soft shell crab. Though the place started trimming the legs to manageable length which I found disappointing, less crunchy bits. More couth to eat I suppose, not that it's ever bothered me much. And yes, I have felt the eyeballs rolling around in my mouth when I chewed.

                              We have two major Chinatowns nearby and a huge and varied East Asian population so head on shrimp are very easy to find both in restaurants and stores.

                              I'd second all the reasons given, reminder that this was once a live animal that we are now eating, likelihood of greater freshness, tastes good, and especially good in stock. I save shrimp shells in the freezer for shrimp stock and the end product is definitely worth it.

                              1. re: Louise

                                There's a certain sacramental quality that I like about seeing the shrimp, fish or shellfish in its whole state. It's indeed healthy to remind ourselves, if not constantly then at least once in a while, where our food really comes from.

                                1. re: cgfan

                                  So fish "sticks" should instead be shaped like little fish? :)

                                  1. re: Veggo

                                    Veggo: Yes on the little fish, but in a slightly different guise...

                                    I'd vote for tying them even more closely to their production line, factory food heritage. We can place them on popsicle sticks and wrap them up in paper, much like the frozen treats that they resemble. ...and bonus points for printing the wrapper with codes for the packing facility, lot number, line number, and good til date...

                                    ...and what happened to the little fish? Well a graphic of a vibrant, flapping little fish for the wrapper, and we are done!

                            2. One time I was in Taiwan and my uncle took me to a place on a pier that was considered to be one of the best seafood places in the area. Anyways, he of course ordered all of the specialties. When they brought out a big covered bowl and placed it in the middle of the lazy susan, I was a bit perplexed. Then the waiter took some wine and moved the cover only the slightest and poured in the wine. All of a sudden the bowl started popping, like popcorn.

                              Well, the wine agitaed the little items inside, which were live baby shrimp, and they started hopping mad. Well, I was just out of high school at the time and was not yet a lover of sushi, so you could imagine my confusion. I wanted to try it, but I didn't want to take the first bite. (You were suppose to eat all but the tail in one bite.) So, my dear mom pulled one out, bit off the head and ate it as I ate all the rest (minus the tail). It was good and now that I think of it, it may be the reason why I now love sushi so much....

                              I do like salt and pepper shrimp and the heads of the sweet shrimp. Yum!

                              1. Ok, so to resurrect this thread, I'm curious about both shrimps and crawfish - I've sucked head lots of time, and eaten the whole thing after being deep-fried, and in MOST of the cases, the flavor is really pungent and a tad bitter - is that normal?

                                I hear so many people talk about how sweet the head is, etc.... it makes me wonder if I've been getting subpar specimens all this time.

                                Don't get me wrong, they're generally not inedible, and the flavor even when pungent is really earthy and animal-y, sometimes in a great way, and other times in an "ick" way...

                                So, thoughts?

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: tenacity

                                  Eating shrimp heads resembles eating the "tamale" and "brains" of the lobster and has a similar characteristic. I personally find there's a good, deep flavour in those parts that I wouldn't skip. Like some people above I absolutely love eating fried shrimp heads and tails.

                                  1. re: Blueicus

                                    Frankly, yeccch! I don't care if shrimp heads are the fountain of youth. When I look at my dinner, I don't want it looking at me.

                                  2. re: tenacity

                                    Pungent seafood is not a good sign.
                                    I love my sweet fried shrimp heads with a little sea salt and a squeeze of lemon:

                                    You can even eat these tails!

                                  3. Shrimp heads go south very quickly, so if you're not either in a region where they're caught or are very wealthy and can afford to have them overnighted from a direct source we're much better off getting them frozen. For that matter, while not as quick the bodies go bad too.

                                    I occasionally eat the fried heads of smaller shrimp, but the bigger ones' shells stick in my teeth and are pretty much unchewable. They make great stock though.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Richard 16

                                      Shrimp heads should not be pungent. They should have this really rich flavor to it. I usually just like sucking the goo out of them but that is only if the shrimp is alive right before they cook it. They sell shrimp frozen with the head on it now and those are just not the same. You have to try it but only if the shrimp come right out of the tank. They will have that at most chinese seafood restaurants. It is very high in cholestorol though.

                                    2. I have been craving a rich seafood soup for the last month, and I have found a place that sells shrimp with the heads on. I will use the heads and some fish frames to make a good stock for my soup. I have never eaten the heads, but since I have found a place that sells whole shrimp, I will try them. So, I will be in the hunt for a good recipe that makes them nice and crispy.

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Toni6921

                                        Just toss in some flour or corn starch and throw it in oil to fry...they're amazing that way. It's also good on the grill when the head's a little burnt and crispy. Even if it was just steamed you can still eat the whole thing! If they sold shrimp heads in a bag as a snack I would never buy potato chips again!

                                        1. re: joonjoon

                                          Thank you so much for your reply. I will report back to you when I make them. I used to order a dish in Chinatown in Washington D.C. at a restaurant called the Golden Palace. They made a shrimp dish and the shrimp were cooked in their shells, then tossed in a tomato sauce that had ginger, garlic, and Chinese Rice Wine. I removed the shrimp from the shells, not realizing until now that the shells were supposed to be eaten too!! This is all very enlightening.

                                      2. Usually I've had head-on shrimp cooked a an Indian coconut curry- delicious, rich flavor added to the simmering sauce, and I just suck the stuff out of the head.

                                        Last night, I decided to go a different route and fry the head. Cut them off the body, trimmed off the long tentacles, eyes and sharp ridge at the top, and seasoned with a tiny dash of salt and a heavy dose of cayenne pepper. Tossed in a 50/50 mix of rice flour and cornstarch (some of the liquid in the heads was seeping out, so it helped the dry coating to adhere), and them tossed in a shallow, hot pan of oil (about 375'F, I think). Turn after 1 min, about 2 min total of cooking time.

                                        It was fully crisp, no chewy, tough bits of shell at all. Just spicy, crunchy and briny. My only reservation is that I created quite a bit of steam/smoke during the frying process, and feared setting off the smoke alarm! But it certainly was tasty, and I'd probably do it again as an occasional treat.

                                        3 Replies
                                        1. re: 4Snisl

                                          There's no reason to trim anything off the head when you crispy fry it...it all turned into delicious crunchy shrimpy goodness.

                                          1. re: joonjoon

                                            Thanks for the tip! (And your other postings, which gave me the guts to try frying them at home in the first place!)

                                            The trimming had more to do with the idea of eliminating eyeballs than anything.....I consider myself farily adventurous, but somehow get stuck when it comes to eating eyeballs, even bitty shrimpy ones. :)

                                            1. re: 4Snisl

                                              Thanks 4Snisl!

                                              I'm glad you enjoyed your shrimp heads! I know they're a bit scary at first but when you realize it's all edible it becomes more fun. Try eating the eyeballs next time, they won't bite! :D

                                        2. I get my fresh shrimp/prawns from the boat who docks at Cowichan Bay. Not easy to know when the boat will show up and even then if you are an hour late forget it. Very small 'popcorn' shrimp we eat whole. Large shrimp/prawns we always eat raw or sauteed for a few seconds. We suck the best part from the shrimp after we break off the tail section. I've never actually heard of anyone in twenty plus years of commercial fishing for basically everything that swims in the waters off the West Coast "cutting" the heads off shrimp. You learn something evert day though.

                                          1. definitely suck the head!! best part of the whole shrimp