Here's Why We Should All Stop Saying 'Shrimp Scampi' Out Loud

There are foodies, there are grammarians, and then there are the people who straddle the divide. For better or for worse, we all know at least one of them, and maybe we are one of them. They're always there to correct you when you mispronounce words like bruschetta, au jus, or coq au vin, and though it may be annoying in the moment, we're probably better off for it.

If you find yourself at a seafood restaurant in the company of one such studious gastronome, be sure not to say the words "shrimp" and "scampi" in the same breath, lest you be forced to sit through their TED Talk. Though commonly conflated, shrimp and scampi are entirely separate things. While it's widely held that scampi is a particular style of cooking shrimp, scampi is not a shrimp at all. Instead, it's a unique crustacean species called a langoustine, which more closely resembles a lobster.

You wouldn't call a shrimp a lobster

Many recipes would have you believe that scampi refers to shrimp sautéed in garlic, white wine, and butter. That's almost true, but not quite. Scampi is its own kind of crustacean that isn't as common to U.S. oceans as regular shrimp. So, calling a scampi dish shrimp scampi doesn't make much sense. As Faye Levy once put it in the Los Angeles Times, "It's like saying 'shrimp lobster.'"

While scampi may look a lot like shrimp with its beady eyes and long antenna, your neighborhood fishmongers won't label it as such. If they don't call it scampi, they might call it Dublin Bay Prawn, langoustine, or Norway Lobster. Of course, there is no rule against replacing scampi with shrimp in an Italian-American dish that stars the aforementioned garlicky sauce. If you do, referring to it as scampi-style shrimp may be permissible.

What's the difference?

In addition to belonging to a different class of crustaceans, scampi is pretty different from the denizens of your typical shrimp cocktail. While shrimp are abundant in U.S. waters and beyond, scampi, which are larger than prawns, tend to stick to places like Iceland, Morocco, parts of the Mediterranean, the Norwegian coast, and the U.K. Sustainable fisheries will catch them using Scottish-style creels, then boil them like lobsters.

The U.S. tends to favor scampi the Italian-American way, with plenty of garlic and butter served with pasta or crusty bread. But in the U.K., you might find them breaded and fried like a piece of cod or haddock, usually served as pub fare. In Iceland, should you have your fill of hákarl, the national dish composed of fermented shark, you might find scampi prepared in the same way as in the States, but with their shells still intact. You can prepare them any way you like — just don't call them shrimp.