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I personally hate the texture, so I avoid shrimp heads. Given that I've only been to a handful of American restaurants that serve shrimp with the heads or shells attached, I'd bet I'm not alone.

But I'm curious if anyone knows of other nations, through their personal or professional travels, that show a similar preference? I imagined it was a Western preference but after time in Paris and London, I've decided this isn't so (unless they too are catering to a small proportion of tourists).

Anyone have any insight?

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    In Australia it's quite common for them to be sold / served whole but they are normally boiled so everyone mostly removes the head and peels to eat. I've tried them myself fried until crispy and eaten the whole lot which I enjoyed, but never seen it in local restaurants. – PeterJ May 27 '14 at 9:55
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    Most other cultures care about flavor -- and heads and shells are flavor. Many Americans care more about convenience than flavor, so most restaurants won't serve head-on shrimp. Maybe with the tail still attached, if it's steamed for dipping on cocktail sauce, but even 'peel-and-eat' generally comes without heads on. (and it warned that it's peel-and-eat on the menu, generally only done at dedicated seafood restaurants). – Joe May 27 '14 at 10:14
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    Agree with @PrestonFitzgerald - I've found that Americans in general can be very squeamish about their animal products. Heads of any kind are rare to see and very few dishes feature organ meats (liver, kidney, tripe, etc.) I think at least part of this comes from relative cultural prosperity, being able to choose quality cuts instead of needing to use the whole animal. For shrimp specifically, the whole shell helps retain moisture during cooking and contains a lot of flavorful juices, so I think they're worth keeping if you can find them. – logophobe May 27 '14 at 16:00
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    We've been taught for generations that raw food is dangerous and positively coated with killer, invisible bugs. It's a culture of fear when it comes to food outside our pre-packaged, dressed up ingredients. – Preston May 28 '14 at 1:58
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    @PrestonFitzgerald : perhaps it was a gross stereotyping -- but there are whole swaths of the country that are known for bland food, and where boring bland food is the norm. (it might be that those areas are filled with supertasters who can appreciate the subtleties of lightly seasoned food more than your typical foodie, but I've had friends that complain when I put a few grinds of pepper to finish and complain it's too spicy) – Joe May 28 '14 at 11:52
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There is a tradition in southern cooking for boiling Crayfish (crawdads). Boil them in seasoned water, then tear them in half, suck out the head, and eat the tail. So this is possible for shrimp as well. I have done it and seen it done at some seafood restaurants. I don't know that the heads are ever eaten, but they do contribute to the flavor.

I have also seen people from SE Asia (Vietnam, Laos, etc.) that would eat whole shrimp, shells and all. So it is culture dependent. This is true of many foods. While we balk at shrimp heads in America, we love our cinnamon and cumin (sweets and tacos). A lot of asian people I've met, specifically Japanese, find these flavors too strong or 'dirty' tasting. Culture has a lot to do with what foods you find enjoyable, mostly through comfort and familiarity.

Here is an article on taste preferences. It points out the familiarity angle, which is pretty interesting. The more foods you're exposed to before two, the more foods you'll like. After that, you tend to dislike anything new until you 'train' yourself to like it. Except Lima Beans because they are always icky.

The Psychology of hating food and how we learn to love it

While there is a lot of flavor in the head and shell of shrimp, the texture is probably an aquired taste. I also get a bit grossed out when the vein (digestive tract) is still in the shrimp. Depending on how it's processed, this may or may not be an issue. Whether it bothers you or not, you can always process whole shrimp yourself and save the heads and shells. Boil it in a stock pot with some arromatics, and you have a quick, flavorful seafood stock in about 20-30 minutes. Add some seared scallops, clams, chunks of fish, etc.

  • I'm with you on the tract. I spend more time deveining shrimp than I do cooking or eating them. <_< – Preston May 28 '14 at 2:00
  • @PrestonFitzgerald I generally just use a knife, make a shallow cut along the back, and scoop it out. Goes pretty quick. Many moons ago I worked at a seafood chain, and they had a neat little slicer that you dropped the beheaded shrimp into it belly down, and it sliced the back open for shelling and deveining. Pretty nice, but probably a little to big for most home kitchens. – JSM Jun 3 '14 at 0:01

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