24. Jan, 2015

Crustaceans: Ocean Candy

“Time will tell, as the lobster said when they assured him that he would turn red if he fell into the boiler.” – Edward Lear.

Crustaceans have fascinated me ever since I tried – unsuccessfully - to catch ghost crabs on Durban’s beaches as a toddler. Later on I became quite adept at catching “sea lice” (actually mole crabs) in the surf, but the fleet-footed rock crabs were always too nimble for me. On excursions to Mozambique my parents introduced us kids to the joys of the storied “LM Prawn”, named after Lourenço Marques, the colonial-era name for Maputo. Pre-1975, the two prawn meccas in LM were the Costa do Sol restaurant on the outskirts of the city, and the Catembe Hotel on the seaward side of the Santa Maria peninsula. I still remember vividly how we would take the ferry across the bay, and a rickety old bus from there to the hotel on Catembe’s beachfront. For me, life didn’t get much better than polishing a plate of grilled prawns and chips, and washing it down with an ice-cold Fanta Orange.

Over the years, my love affair with these tasty arthropods has not just continued but intensified. I have been privileged to see and taste many of them, and notwithstanding an occasional allergic reaction to them (fortunately nothing a few anti-histamine tablets can’t fix) I enjoy them whenever I can. The one exception is farmed prawns from the East – just read Taras Grescoe’s “Bottom Feeder” and you’ll understand why!

Edible crustaceans come in all shapes and sizes. Some are minute, like the krill that whales hoover up by the tonne. Some are swimmers, like the majority of shrimps, prawns and certain crabs. Others stroll across the ocean floor (e.g. crabs and crayfish) while lobsters and mangrove and spider crabs rumble around like Tiger tanks. The least understood of the lot are barnacles, which resemble coral growth on rocks in the intertidal zone. Look closely, however, and you’ll see crab-like pincers moving around the barnacle’s little “block house”. A close relative is the much-prized (and less heavily armoured) goose neck barnacles of Galicia.

Almost all the tasty ones are marine or estuarine animals, with one exception – a miniature lobster that inhabits fresh water. Known as the ecrevisse in France, the crawfish or crawdaddy in the Deep South of the USA and the Yabby of Australia. They thrive equally well in cold North Atlantic water and the mangrove swamps of the Tropics. Their flesh is delicate and slightly sweet, and can be served in endless ways: from raw to simmered in a curry. What further endears them to the gourmet is that they are generally attractive on a plate – interesting shapes combined with a lovely red colour when cooked. They are good for you as well; rich in many nutrients we need and low in most of the bad stuff. Let me introduce you to this fascinating group of animals.

Shrimps are similar in appearance to prawns, but smaller. That is, unless you are an American. They insist on calling the larger kind shrimp, and vice versa. These tasty little critters are unfortunately much maligned in certain circles, and regarded as “tasteless”. Readers who have tasted the insipid tinned variety in an Avocado Ritz will understand why. They are actually very, very good eating provided they are fresh and not overcooked. In the North-East of England, “potted shrimp” enjoys cult status, and I personally love making ceviche with them. Because they are so small, they are “cooked” by the lemon in minutes.

Prawns are larger, firmer and stronger tasting than shrimps. They are the best known and most popular of the   crustaceans among the general public. I will never forget observing a few large African-American matrons making a pile of “shrimp” (this was in Washington DC) disappear at the iconic Philip’s crab house on the Potomac. They are the heroes of one of the world’s great seafood dishes: Paella. Closer to home, they are gobbled up grilled or barbecued with peri-peri sauce – 40 years later, even staunch anti-colonialists still call them “LM Prawns”.

Langoustines have harder, thicker shells than prawns and can easily be identified by their very long pincers. Referred to as “Dublin Bay Prawns” by the Irish, they have extremely tasty flesh, and their spiny shells impart a distinctive aroma when cooked. Italians are besotted with them, and consume tonnes of Scampi every year. Further east, they are a key ingredient in that Thai classic, Tom Yum soup. The first time Jakki and I had it, it made such an impression on us that we went back to the same restaurant for supper and had it once more!

Fans of the 70s and 80s duo “The Carpenters” will be familiar with Crawfish, the fresh water cousin of the langoustine and lobster. It features prominently in Southern and Cajun cooking, and is the star of iconic dishes like Jambalaya and Gumbo. Many of the French who were “ethnically cleansed” from South Eastern Canada (then known as “Acadia”) a couple of centuries ago settled on the US Gulf Coast and become known as “Acadians” which soon became “Cajuns”. Their French roots show in the way they combine crawfish and Andouille sausage in these dishes. In the Old Country, their kinsmen in Burgundy prefer their ecrevisse simply simmered in white wine.

Lobster are without doubt the monarchs of the crustacean domain. Once plentiful in the North Sea, their numbers have declined drastically over recent decades, and most lobster served in British and European restaurants nowadays are imported from New England and Canada. Ironically, these populations have grown strongly since the near-extinction of the cod – their main predator - in that part of the world. Europeans love their lobster à l’Americaine (in a rich tomato-and wine-based cream sauce), whereas the Americans themselves prefer it simply steamed or in a lobster roll.

Salt water crayfish resemble outsized prawns, as they lack the prominent pincers of lobsters, langoustines and crawfish. There are three well-known species, and numerous lesser-known ones including the Cigale de Mer or shoveller crayfish. This weird creature has the body of a crayfish, but its front end looks like it belongs on a Bulldozer! The popular ones are the Mediterranean “Spiny Lobster”, the Cape “Rock Lobster” and the Indo-Pacific “Blue Crayfish” – the latter by far the biggest. Because they are (relatively) plentiful these creatures make popular sushi ingredients, while traditionalists feast on “Crayfish Thermidor”; cooked crayfish split in half lengthways and grilled with a cheese and mushroom topping. South Africans go gaga for crayfish simply barbecued, basted with lemon and garlic butter.

Barnacles are sessile crustaceans. i.e. they have lost the ability to move around. They attach themselves to rocks in the intertidal zone, where they develop hard shells to protect themselves against the rough and tumble of the surf. Using their strong claws deftly, they grab passing foodstuffs and consume it in the comfort of their shells. Despite their weird appearance, they are perhaps the tastiest of the lot – incredibly delicate and very sweet. Especially prized are the “goose neck” barnacles of Galicia in North-West Spain.

Crabs range in size from smallish (blue swimming crabs) through medium-sized (rock crabs) to large (mangrove and stone crabs) to massive (spider and king crabs). The blue swimming crab is the one the famous Maryland crab cakes are made of, and they are called “soft shell crabs” when they moult. Soft shell crabs are coated in batter, deep fried and eaten whole, not just in the USA but all over the world. Rock crabs make excellent “crab paprika pies” with their sturdy shells serving as “pie crusts”.

Stone crabs are perhaps the most fortunate among their kin - only their claws are eaten, so fisherman simply break off the claws of their catch and return the “donors” to the sea where they quickly grow new claws. Mangrove crabs are perfect for crab curry and chilli crab, while the giant spider crabs are prized only for their legs. These are typically steamed and simply eaten with mayonnaise or a tasty sauce.

The photos below are a celebration of these amazing creatures and the many ways in which they can be enjoyed.

“The crab that walks too far falls into the pot.” – Haitian proverb.