“When life gives you lemons, order the crayfish tail.” – Michael Richards.
Despite an allergy that requires me to always have anti-histamine tablets nearby when I eat it, I am a crayfish fanatic. This
passion goes back to my previous life, when as a student at the Military Academy in Saldanha I had the privilege of diving for crayfish and perlemoen in some of the best spots in the country. Thanks to always having fresh or frozen kreef available,
I could experiment with them to my heart’s content.
What we call “crayfish” in South Africa should not be confused with the freshwater crayfish (the ecrevisse of France, crawdaddy of the USA and yabbie
of Australia.) Also known variously as rock lobsters or spiny lobsters in some parts of the world), they are among the most highly prized – and priced – crustaceans around. Salt water crayfish resembleoutsized prawns, as they lack the prominent
pincers of lobsters, langoustines and crawfish. Three species occur in Southern Africa: the Cape “Rock Lobster”, the smallish and the huge Indo-Pacific “Blue Crayfish” often found on fish markets in Mozambique.
The firm, sweet
flesh of the Kreef (crayfish) is one of South Africa’s true culinary treasures, yet until fairly recently it was not held in particularly high esteem by the burgers of the Cape. As Dr CF (Louis) Leipoldt remarked in one of his “Polfyntjies
vir die Proe” essays, “… the taste of crayfish was not popular in days gone by – certainly not among the White population. “Boere people” never really liked it, and in my grandmother’s recipe book (which contained
numerous sea food recipes) not a word is said about crayfish.”
Since those days, crayfish has come to be regarded as the delicacy it is, and modern freezing and transportation techniques have made it far more widely available. Even mediocre restaurants
now offer at least Avocado Ritz with crayfish as a matter of course, while the premier ones offer a variety of dishes featuring this erstwhile “ugly duckling” of our sea food. In summer, South Africans go gaga for crayfish simply barbecued, basted
with lemon and garlic butter, but in winter the traditional “Crayfish Thermidor” comes into its own, along with one of my firm favourites, Crayfish Curry. Here is how I make it:
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Tastes best accompanied by a chilled Colombard or Riesling
4 Medium-sized Crayfish (carapace of 9 – 10 cm long)
6 Ripe tomatoes, peeled, blanched and pureed
2 Red bell peppers, seeded
2 Large onions, peeled and sliced
2 Medium-sized green chillies – pitted and halved lengthwise
4 Cloves fresh garlic, crushed
¼ Cup fresh coriander leaves, chopped
4 Curry leaves
6 Cardamom pods,
opened. Discard the pods and retain the seeds
3 Pieces stick cinnamon, about 15 cm total length
1 Tsp. ground cumin
1 Tsp. ground coriander seeds
1 Tsp. fennel seeds
1 Tsp. turmeric powder
1 Tsp. white mustard seeds
¼ Cup tamarind paste or juice of half a lemon
2 Cups water
¼ Cup ghee (clarified butter) or sunflower oil
1 Tsp. sugar
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
- Split each crayfish in half
lengthwise and clean out all the innards from the carapace. Pull the tails out of the carapaces. Keep the crayfish cool.
- Heat the ghee/oil in a large saucepan and braise the onions and garlic until translucent and golden brown.
- Add the salt,
pepper, sugar, chilli, curry leaves, cumin, fennel, coriander, turmeric, cardamom seeds and cinnamon.
- Fry the spices with the onions for about 1 minute, then add the tomato puree, diced bell pepper, tamarind and water to the mixture and stir in.
- Simmer for 15 minutes or until thick.
- Add all the crayfish pieces, including the legs and antennae.
- Simmer for about 5 minutes, then add the mustard seeds and simmer for a further 3 minutes. The crayfish shells should have turned completely
red by now.
- Remove the empty red carapaces and discard.
- Serve the crayfish with basmati rice, garnished with the chopped coriander leaves.
“ ‘How fishy on the fishiness scale? Ten is a stickleback
and one is a whale shark.’ ‘A whale isn’t a fish, Thursday.’ ‘A whale shark is – sort of’ ‘All right, it’s as fishy as a crayfish.’ ‘A crayfish isn’t a fish.’ ‘A starfish then!’
‘Still not a fish.’ ‘This is a very odd conversation, Thursday…’ “ – Jasper Fforde.