Monsoon Special: Mud Crabs For A Comforting Crustascen Meal
Image Credit: Canva: Mud Crab

As the rainy season arrives and the air becomes saturated with the enchanting scent of moist earth, a sense of anticipation takes hold. Amidst the downpour, there is a thrilling eagerness to embark on the adventure of capturing the elusive mudcrabs that are in season during this time. Despite the initial reluctance to venture out into the rain, the allure of this seasonal pursuit overpowers any hesitation, especially if you are close by to mangroves, estuaries, ponds, and the shores of the sea.

Mudcrabs belong to the Scylla family of crabs, which are ambiguous and belong to the kind of crabs that can swim. While four species of mud crabs are the focus of commercial fisheries and aquaculture in India, Scylla Serrata, also known as black crabs, are the most commonly found crabs in mangroves, estuaries, and so on.

They are predominantly found in Asia, Australia, and various African countries. Notably, Sri Lanka is renowned for its abundant mudcrab population, with dedicated restaurants offering exquisite preparations featuring this prized crustacean. Along the west coast of India, mudcrabs thrive in mangroves and estuaries, while their cultivation is practised in ponds across states like West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Karnataka.

"I live along the coastline in this village called Velim in South Goa, and I have literally grown up catching crabs.  It has been blessed with great shores and mangroves where the mud crabs thrive, and I used to catch them by casting a net overnight with a chunk of meat or small fish and leaving it be until the morning after, where there would be fresh crabs," says Chef Avinash Martin, Chef And Owner, Cavatina, Benaulim, Goa.

In places like Kerala, Goa, Mangalore, Pune, and other areas along the Indian west-coast, these plump crabs are used for various culinary preparations. In Kerala, the monsoon is the season for mud crabs when the lakes fill up and rivers flow with full force towards the sea. Ashtamudi is one of the largest lakes in the state that has mangroves, and the shores and its backwater canals are great breeding grounds for mud crabs. The people in this part of Kerala enjoy their crab roast and crab curry made with coconut, shallots, and spices thoroughly. "One of my personal favourite..eating crab is an art!" exclaims Chef Suresh Pillai, Founder of Restaurant Chef Pillai, on his Instagram video post where he demonstrates the crab curry preparation. It is no surprise that he hails from this region as well.

From sukka, ghee roast, and xec-xec to roast and curry, you will find many varieties of dishes made especially from mud crabs. And if you ate them while growing up, it is a taste you will never forget. "The best places to catch crabs would definitely be along the rocks, mangroves, and the coast or shores in any place. For the mud crabs to thrive, the water needs to be not salty but brackish—a mix of fresh water and saline water. Generally, that's the best environment for these crustaceans, as the meat tends to taste sweeter and out-of-this-world in comparison to the sea crabs," continues Chef Martin.

Mud crabs are best enjoyed on their own, without any seasonings or accompaniments. The easiest way to savour the crab-y flavour is to toss the freshly caught crab onto the embers or into the wood-fire and leave it there for about 15–20 minutes to cook before taking it off. When they have cooled down, rip the shells apart, toss out the inedible bits, and dive straight in to enjoy the sweet and succulent flesh from the claws and crust that are naturally seasoned from their own salts, which enhance the earthy flavour of the mud crab.

They have meaty-thick claws, and their tough shells display a diverse range of colours, spanning from mottled green to dark shades of brown bordering on black. And mud crabs differ from sea crabs in many ways. "In comparison to sea crabs, the meat is more chunky, and the claws are fatter in mud crabs. The whole crab is a lot bigger. I have also eaten a crab that weighed 2.5 kg. The texture is much more lump in comparison to the stringiness of a sea crab. The taste is sweet, and you need nothing else to elevate the taste of crab meat. You don't need anything else to disguise or mask the taste of the crab meat. Just a squeeze of lemon and butter is all you need," says Chef Avinash Martin.

Just like fishing, catching crabs is an act of perseverance that requires patience. When it comes to catching these creatures, one must be careful about their powerful claws, as they can inflict serious injuries. There are several methods to catch these crustaceans. In Goa, the crab trap, locally known as "koblems" or kubulim," is an integral part of crab catching. These homemade crab traps consist of a circular metal ring with a diagonal rod running across its diameter. One side of the ring is equipped with a loosely hanging net. This design allows the traps to effectively catch crabs by providing a suitable space for them to enter and get captured.

The circular metal ring serves as the framework of the trap, providing stability and structure. The diagonal rod adds strength and support to the trap, ensuring its durability during the crab-catching process. The loose hanging net attached to one side of the ring acts as the containment area, allowing crabs to enter but making it difficult for them to escape. With a bait of meat waste like chicken intestines, feet, etc. secured within the net and left in catchments overnight, one can come back in the morning to fetch their fresh batch of crabs for a hearty meal that day.

These crab traps, with their simple yet effective design, play a crucial role in the traditional crab-catching activities in Goa. Apart from that, Chef Avinash Martin says that he has seen people using spears to catch mud crabs, adding, "I've seen people spearing away to catch the crabs and breaking a claw or two in the process. The best and most efficient way, I feel, is to lay a trap with a chunk of meat as bait to catch the crabs. That way, they come hunting for the meat and get caught, giving you a chance to secure the whole crab without much struggle or damage, and you get to capture it in its whole form."

Each region has its own style of mud crab preparation. In Pune, people seem to enjoy their crabs packed with masalas and a spicy punch. And in Mangalore, Kerala, and Goa, it is best enjoyed in preparations that have coconut as the base, paired with souring agents like kokum, lemons, and a balanced hit of spices. Tamil Nadu is famous for their Chettinadu crab preparations that include generous amounts of garlic, tamarind, and black pepper, while in West Bengal, it is savoured in an onion gravy or a curry that also includes potatoes.

" Mud crab can be prepared in various ways. In Goa, it is spiced up to make a popular dish called xec xec. One of the most common mistakes that I have seen people make is adding too much water and boiling it while cooking crab. That's a big 'no' because all the flavour is simply released to the water, leaving behind a crab that is not tasty anymore," says Chef Martin, adding, "I personally best enjoy my crab when it is steamed in a mud vessel along with a chilli and some kokum. It is the best thing when served with a squeeze of lime and a dash of butter."

If this has made you crave some crab comfort, get your hands on some fine mud crabs from your local market or fishmonger to whip up some hearty crab curry or roast with some coconut and warm spices, and let us know how you enjoyed it.