I have always wondered how human beings decided to eat crab. Delicious creature though it is, for me it falls in the same category as a custard apple or an oyster, those “difficult to eat”, but addictive once you get hooked, foods. Along the West coast of India crabs are relatively commonplace, but nobody really thought much about them in the great culinary circles of this country until a little restaurant tucked away in the by-lanes of South Mumbai, called Trishna, started serving something called “Salt, Butter, Pepper, Garlic Jumbo Crab” nearly 20 years ago. It was as much of a mouthful as the description on the menu; succulent, sweet flesh surrounded by devilishly sinful melted butter spiked with oodles of garlic.
Yes, the Chinese restaurants in Mumbai such as Nanking, Lings and Golden Dragon at the Taj also serve a very good jumbo crab. Little local seafood eateries have always served tiny crabs smothered in masala, but somehow it was the combination of the melted garlic butter, the whopping size of those claws (which makes it easier to get to the flesh) and Trishna’s bohemian back alley location that hooked us all.
Going into a fish market in India can be a frightening ordeal if you are not used to it. Large fisherwomen beckoning, shouting different prices and marketing different species, all madams of their domain. But this is what you will have to endure if you want to buy a crab. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to live in one of those neighbourhoods, in one of those cities where the machiwalla still makes his rounds.
And, you must always buy crab live, not dead. This is because crab flesh goes off very fast after it has been killed. The only way to ensure you are getting a fresh one is to buy it live and do the dirty deed yourself. This is where it starts getting tricky.
I used to plunge the thing live into boiling water out of fear, but was informed by a Goan nanny we had many years ago that this was completely wrong. It toughens the meat and the precious claws can fall off, leaving you with nice tasting water and chewy flesh. She used to dismember the creature first, clean it by removing the gills and the spongy parts under the shell, and then wash it thoroughly. Crack the claws and the crab is ready for cooking (somewhere along the way, the crab dies).
In India, jumbo crabs are sweet, moist and tasty. Abroad, and in recipe books, they are referred to as Mud Crabs or Mangrove Crabs. In Asia, they are usually found in mangroves, rivers or estuaries. The Blue Swimmer Crab is the most common crab in the world. It is usually caught in baited traps in the sea and is very valuable commercially. I have seen it in markets here, but personally, I think there is nothing to beat the taste of the Mud Crab.
In terms of nutrition, people tend to get a bit nervous about the cholesterol level in seafood. Good news, crab has about half the cholesterol as prawn or lobster and, like all crustaceans, is an excellent source of protein and zinc. Plus, in tropical waters such as ours, it has very low fat content (0.5-2%).
For those who would like to venture into the world of crab cooking, here is a sure shot recipe for Singaporean Chilli Crab, the kind you find in local Singaporean restaurants and used to find in a haunt, which sadly no longer exists, called Punggol. The best part is that you are supposed to slurp the sauce afterwards or mop it up with soft pao.
SINGAPOREAN CHILLI CRAB
One jumbo crab, cleaned and chopped—about 1kg
Garlic—8 cloves, chopped
Onions—3, finely chopped
Ginger—1-inch piece, finely chopped
Fresh red chillies—4, thinly sliced (or 6 Kashmiri chillies, soaked for an hour)
Tomato ketchup—3 tbsp
Red chilli sauce—3 tbsp
Chicken stock or water—350 ml (1½ cups)
Cornflour mixed with a little water—1 tbsp
Eggs—2, lightly beaten
Vegetable oil—5 tbsp
Heat the oil and fry the sliced chillies until golden. Add the garlic, onion and ginger, and stir-fry for a while. Add the stock, tomato ketchup, chilli sauce, salt and sugar and bring to a boil. Add the crab, cover and cook until it turns pink. Stir in the cornflour mixture to thicken. Cook for a minute. Add the eggs and mix in quickly. Serve before the eggs harden.
Write to Karen Anand at firstname.lastname@example.org