When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, there were two kinds of long insect-looking shellfish: lobsters and shrimp. (The round kind were of course crabs.) Shrimp were small and lobsters were large.
Since then, I’ve encountered a variety of names for a variety of sizes and types of what my wife calls “disgusting sea insects” and generally refuses to eat (“I’ll have yours, then,” I say): prawns (which seems to an Albertan boy to be a word British people use for shrimp because shrimp doesn’t sound insufferable enough), crayfish, crawfish, crawdaddy (are these just three degrees of folksiness for the same thing?), scampi (sometimes seen on a menu as shrimp scampi, suggesting that it’s a way of preparing the things, and yet at other times in a phrase such as scampi alla this or that, so what are we about here?), and, perhaps most recently for me, langostino and langoustine.
It’s been a few years since I first saw langostino and langoustine, but I think when I saw langoustine on a menu for the first time I wasn’t really expecting a sea insect. I mean, with a name like that, it could be anything, you know? Fungus, fish, leg muscle of lamb, opera singer, tongue sausage? Is it a defunct life form or a way of preparing defunct life forms? Or is it a region of southern France (Langoustine like Languedoc?) or Italy (“My dear, have you not had the scampi in Langostino? Oh, you poor deprived thing, you must go there”)? If you approach it agnostic, it is a linguistic guessing game.
In fact, even if you know that a langoustine is a medium-large sea insect, bigger than a shrimp but smaller than a lobster, you’re still not guaranteed certainty. The word means different things in different places. It helps if you know that langosta is Spanish for ‘lobster’, coming from Latin locusta, meaning ‘lobster’ or (obviously) ‘locust’ (sea insects!), and that the –ino ending is a diminutive: ‘little lobster’. But depending on where you are, langostino can refer to squat lobster (really related to crabs), crayfish, a kind of big shrimp, or a kind of small lobster. Langoustine (obviously a French word, a diminutive of langouste, which means langosto, see above) has a more formal definition – it’s a synonym for Norway lobster, Dublin Bay prawn, and scampi, which are all names for the same thing: a kind of small lobster. But you can see langoustine applied to langostino on occasion, I reckon.
Whatever. Stick it on my plate well prepared and I’ll eat it. Yes, shrimp and lobster do taste a bit different and all that. I’ll take them all, and of course my wife’s too. But do you mind serving it to me already extracted from its carapace? I grew up in Alberta, where lobster is served as tail meat set on top of the shell. This idea of ripping the lobster open and dealing with all the guts (“That’s called the tomalley. It’s considered a delicacy”) is an eastern thing. I don’t have to disembowel anything else I eat, so I can skip doing it to sea insects too. I may be glad to dissect the word langostino, but I’ll pay someone else to dissect the thing it names.
Fortunately, I have never had to eviscerate a langoustine. And I have had some perfectly delicious langoustine, including twice on my recent trip, both at lovely high-end restaurants. The first time it was langoustine carpaccio, crunchy langoustine, and champagne sauce at the Yeatman Hotel in Porto; see the menu and a picture of the actual thing. It was delicate, beautiful, and delicious. The second time it was langoustines from Galicia in Spanish bread at Alabaster in Madrid; see the menu – I didn’t take a picture of it, but I seem to recall it was delicious.
But I didn’t get to have my wife’s. Oh, it didn’t languish uneaten; indeed, its gustatory delight was such that, insect or not, she relished it and finished hers.