<em>Illustration: Caroline Adaszynski</em>

Illustration: Caroline Adaszynski

WHEN is a prawn not a prawn but a shrimp, and does it really matter? The question exercised my mind as I sat in an inner-city pizza joint, watching a group at another table contest such matters.

The young manager attempted politely to reassure them the crustaceans on their crust were indeed prawns, albeit perhaps not of regal status. Having just consumed a perfectly acceptable chilli prawn pizza, I sat silently nodding in agreement.

The unwholesome foursome were not convinced. ''We'll take photos and put it on YouTube!''

And there had been a greater crime perpetrated apparently, at least according to the middle-aged guy. ''There was hardly any chilli. I asked for extra chilli and it wasn't there. This always happens to me. Everywhere I go. I ask for chilli and I don't get it.''

It seemed to me that if their pizza had arrived without the desired chilli, it might have been a simple act for an articulate, middle-aged man to ask again, rather than decry its absence to all in earshot only once the pizza had been devoured. After all, before me on the table was a bottle of chilli oil and a small bowl of crushed, dried chilli.

''Happens to me all the time,'' the middle-aged guy kept saying. ''I ask for it and it doesn't come.''

''Most boring pizza we've ever had,'' the older woman added. ''And we will not pay.''

Before this, I had been sitting quietly, reflecting on the previous year, from hurricane Sandy and crazed shootings of schoolchildren to the less reported deaths of 40 people when a bus collided with a tractor in Mexico. I hadn't even begun to contemplate Syria before my thoughts were interrupted yet again …

''We will put them on YouTube! And better still, TripAdvisor!''

As I paid my bill, the waitress asked me if I'd enjoyed my meal. ''I did, actually,'' I said. ''And oddly enough it contained what I identified to be both prawns and chilli.''

On my way out the quarrelsome quartet were still remonstrating with the manager. I did a U-turn to my table, picked up the chilli flakes and chilli oil, and took them over to their table.

''Excuse me,'' I said, ''I can't solve your prawn problem, but please consider this a donation to your little First World chilli crisis.''

Back home, I looked up the difference between prawns and shrimps. It's complex but, unless it came from a can, the chances are what you eat in Australia is a prawn. When Paul Hogan invited the world to put a shrimp on the barbie, it was an invitation to be in a blessed part of the world. Even if he did forget to mention the chilli.

Ross Duncan