Ancient Wise Saying  There are all kinds of crabs found around the world. The crab that walks miles too far will fall into th...

Cracking the Code - Your Guide to Cooking Crab

10 May 2016


Ancient Wise Saying

 There are all kinds of crabs found around the world.
The crab that walks miles too far will fall into the pot - Haitian proverb

And be made into curries, savoury cakes, melts, dips, soups and more that all the people in the world can’t get enough of. This, inspite of there being 6,793 species of crab that can be found in all of the world’s oceans, in fresh water and on land. The number includes the tiniest species that is a few millimetres wide, and is appropriately called the pea crab, to the Japanese spider crab (link) that can grow to a leg span of 4 metres. Also known as the Giant Spider Crab, these are thought to live up to a 100 years, and are considered a delicacy by many regions in Japan and other areas. 

Of course, not all the crabs found on Earth are edible (some of them haven’t even been found yet); but the ones that are, are pretty darn tasty. Taste is an important reason for the 1.5 million tons of crabs being consumed annually in the world. Availability and nutrition are the other two factors that make crabs one-fifth of all animals caught from water globally. Each region may have several species of these arthropods. The ones most popular in India are mud crabs, king crabs and rock crabs, explains Bijal Patel, cofounder FishVish. Crabs are omnivorous, their diet consisting of plant matter and other crustaceans, worms etc. The claws act like scissors for cutting up food. Some crabs can shed limbs and, over a period of time, regenerate them.
Sweet Ecstasy

Crab meat is incredibly delicious and healthy.
Crab meat is delicate and soft, and naturally sweet in flavour. For someone eating crab for the first time, this refreshing sweetness may come as a surprise, but most people take to the tasty flesh readily. An underlying tone of saltiness rounds up the entire tasting experience. In some crabs, meat from the claws and legs of the brown crab is white and flaky in texture, while meat from the body is dark and hearty meat. Some of the popular crabs in India, however, exhibit white-coloured meat throughout. 

The nutritional benefits of crab meat are well-known and extolled. Think low-fat, good quality, succulent protein - crab meat fits the bill competently. A 100 gram serving of crab has about 82 calories with an impressive 16.45 grams of protein. Add to that the loads of Vitamin B12 and heart-friendly omega-3 fatty acids that you get - you’ll never want to look at chicken and turkey again. The fact that crab is quite easily cooked and so versatile only makes its halo shimmer some more. 

Cooking with Crabs 101

Fresh crab can’t be kept for too long at room temperature, so if you’re not getting your hands on any live ones (literally, as this is no mean feat for first-timers), look for refrigerated or frozen crustaceans. These should smell ‘fresh’, and the shell should be hard. Bonus points if you can get the crab thoroughly cleaned, for this takes away most of the hard work that goes into shelling and gutting. If using frozen crabs, ensure individually frozen portions if it’s a big package - you can’t refreeze the product after thawing. If you don’t have access to clean markets, or you’re not sure about the quality of catch at your fishmonger, this is a great option. For thawing, Shumu Gupta suggests the following: Leave the frozen portions in the refrigerator for about 10-12 hours, never at room temperature for more than 1-2 hours. If in a hurry, you can seal the crab in a watertight bag and immerse this in cold water. You don’t want to ‘shock’ delicate seafood by placing it suddenly in high temperatures.

Steaming crabs is a great way to retain the juiciness of the meat
Once you have on your hands a ready-to-cook crab, well, that’s all you have to do, and this is the easy part. Cooking changes the colour of the shell to red or orange. For crab meat still in the shell, a great prepping method is to boil or steam it briefly in a broth that’s been generously seasoned with different flavouring ingredients. Gordon Ramsay’s recipe asks for crab to be simmered in a court bouillon - that can be made with carrots, leeks, onion, celery, fennel and herbs. To this, he adds lemon and white wine. Remember, the simmering time will depend on the weight of your crab - smaller shells will cook faster. Also, if you’re working with frozen portions, those are done quicker than fresh. Overcooking crab renders the meat tough and rubbery. 

East Meets West

The variety of crab dishes from India alone is staggering
Cut crab poached thus can be shelled and served shorn of adornments with just a dish of butter warmed with a little garlic and a grind of pepper. Crab steamed briefly can also be grilled; the meat stays juicy with the pre-grill simmer. Another trick would be to sauté the shell with butter, garlic, chopped green chilli and lemon. Feel free to add some of the crab stock you’ve used to poach the shell - this adds in more flavours and cuts down on the need for a lot of butter. For curries, the thawed crab can be added directly to the rest of the ingredients and left to simmer as suggested in the recipe, so there’s no need to boil it first. Some CKP crab curries ask for legs of small crabs to be ground with water; this is sieved several times, and the stock is added to the curry. The stock adds an extra dash of crab flavour to what is an already stunning dish.

Frozen crab meat, once thawed to room temperature, can be cooked with directly. Add it to pasta and stir fries. Crab cakes are a breeze to prepare, when you have crab meat around. Feel free to add an Indian touch to these with spices and fresh herbs, and call them crab tikkis. You can even look at Vineet Bhatia’s recipe for South Indian crab cake that is served with a crab meat chutney, a tadka-kachumber-meets-mayo-salad invention. Crab and mayonnaise do pair up rather well - salads, dips, melts are just some of the recipe ideas you can experiment with. Then there is that other buddy of crab meat that is lurking around somewhere in the hope of hanging out—cheese, in all forms. It’s there in crab rangoon - wontons stuffed with the meat and cream cheese, and fried to a crisp. It shows up in warm dipping sauces, grilled sandwiches, casseroles, quiches, or even in crab mac and cheese. Ok, so the last is really cheese territory, where crab plays the ingénue; but you get the drift.  

Come Out of Your Shell

Black Pepper Crab tastes as good as it looks
Indian cooking obviously is a beautiful channel to showcase the versatility of these delicious creatures - we have more than enough curries, sukkas, tandooris, roasts, even biryanis to eclipse the most popular crab dishes across the world. We’ve made our spiced up version of butter garlic crab so good, it ranks on the World’s 50 best foods list. Nevertheless, South East Asian cuisines hold their own with their crab in Padang sauce and in oyster sauce, black pepper crab, chilli crab, crab fried rice, raw papaya salads etc. Since our favourite crustaceans are found all over the world, you’ll find recipes from pretty much every region. The French boast of their bisques, the Americans of their savoury cakes. The Brits love them in soups and salads. 

Like most seafood, crab pairs the best with white wine. Depending on the other ingredients that go into your crab dish, you can look for wines that range from flavour profiles of crisp to fruity. The general oenophile consensus for crab served with butter is to pair it with an acidic Chardonnay. A fruity Riesling teams up well with Asian chilli crab. A dry rosé will also go well with a spicy crab dish. A cold dish of crab meat, served with mayonnaise or aioli partners agreeably with a zesty Pinot Gris. 

Make the Most of It

There are numerous ways to enjoy crabs everywhere you go; however, crab sticks are not one of them. These are made with bits of white fish and starch and, at the most, have flavour derived from crabs; who needs this when you can enjoy the sweet, tender, luscious mouth-feel of a well-cooked crustacean? Go on, make the most of what Nature filled the seas and oceans, and in this case, coastal land with. You only live once. 


About the Author
An incorrigible gastronome, Rupika V is on a perpetual quest to find the best food around, and will happily travel far to find it.

Image Credit: Cover
Image Credit: All kinds of crab
Image Credit: Delicious and healthy
Image Credit: Steaming Crabs
Image Credit: Crab Variety Left
Image Credit: Crab Variety Right
Image Credit: Black Pepper Crab


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