Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the day

Eat it all – get stuck into one of Thailand’s delicacies, the soft-shell crab.

 

2-3What’s the connection between a snake, a knight in shining armour and a crab? Well, actually, there are several. The first link is easy enough – yes, the last two are both in armour. Shielded from the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune. And that, you may think, is that. Well, it isn’t. (Unfortunately the title of the story has given the game away already, or else I could have gone on for a bit longer.)The other thing that crabs and knights share is that they frequently have to shed their armour. But the way they each do it is very, very different.

      Question: what species of crab is the soft-shell crab a member of? Is it related to the most-commonly-eaten crab of all, the blue shell crab? Or something softer and smaller perhaps? A mud crab, or a rice-field crab? And where are these crab softies found – these defenceless wimps of the crustacean playground, bullied by all and eaten by many? Unless you’re already grinning and mentally telling me to go take a hike, then you’re actually in exactly the same boat as I was a little while ago. Those of you who are smiling about this already know that soft-shell crabs are . . . nothing at all like knights in shining armour!

       Soft-shell crabs are not a separate species. All crabs are soft-shell crabs – at least once a year throughout their life-cycle. Knights in armour stay the same size and use the same armour again and again. But crabs grow bigger. Well, to be precise, all crabs grow, but their horny carapace doesn’t. Their armour stays the same size. And then, when the conditions are right, these little fatties take a deep breath, puff themselves up, and burst out of their shells.

      The thing is: we’re all so accustomed to seeing soft-shell crab on the menu and in the shops that many of us (myself included, until a little while ago) don’t actually know much about them. Which is where the ‘snake’ connection comes in. Snakes do this too; but everyone seems to know it. When it comes to crabs, everything become a bit more confused. Particularly when you take into account that crabs from temperate and tropical climes react in different ways.

       But this is the same with plants, too. In Europe there are seasons. The hours of daylight and the temperature dictate that, after the cold winter, the warmer spring causes new plants to germinate. They come to fruit in the autumn and die as winter comes around again. But that doesn’t happen over here. Not in the same way. The life cycles of plants and animals are triggered by small shifts of temperature and by marginal changes in the flow of the tides; or by the amount of water or sunlight they receive. It’s a lot more subtle. And that’s why countries like America have a soft-shell crab ‘season’ and we don’t.

       In countries with temperate climates there are only a couple of months where, in the cusp between spring and summer, the rising sea temperature triggers all the crabs to break out of their shells. And in these two months there are cargo planes loaded to the scuppers with tens of tons of fresh, chilled, live soft-shell crabs, heading daily to every city throughout America. But this is Thailand. We do things at our own pace, with a shrug and a smile. And one of the things we do (and people say it’s the best in the world) is to farm and harvest soft-shell crabs. But we do it at any old time we feel like it!

      The crabs that are farmed commercially in Thailand are sea crabs – those with a salt-water habitat. The most common of these is the blue crab. Fortunately this is one delicacy that’s bountiful – you’ll find them everywhere, just sitting around waiting to be plucked from the sea bottom. Farms like this follow a formula: a small strip of coast with a shallow depth of sea alongside: no more than a metre or so. And then a method of keeping all the crabs until their cycle changes due to a shift in the tide or a slight rise in temperature. You watch them closely until they shed their shells. Then you pick ’em and ship ’em!

      Well, that’s simplifying things a bit. Thailand is one of the world’s leaders in soft-shell crab production – although it took a bunch of foreigners to let them know this! The industry was founded by American ‘crabbers’ who stayed here after the Vietnam War and realised the country’s potential. It’s mainly centred around Rayong, on the Chon Buri coast between Bangkok and Pattaya. Here it’s all very streamlined, with the crabs warehoused in small boxes in floor-to-ceiling racks, and with employees to monitor their shedding (or not) every three to four hours. But down here, in the rustic and more laid-back south, we do things differently.

      Every day the local fishermen bring the crabs in. They also are able to rid themselves of their ‘tiddlers’ – the tiny fish in their catch that are too small to be of use. These are taken in as food for the crabs. And then, in just a few feet of water, hundreds of old, discarded water bottles are strung together as floats, in long lines, each with a tiny crab cage hanging beneath it. Whenever one of the crabs is seen to have shed its shell, it’s removed and put into a tank of fresh water. Usually, in only a few days, the new hard shell starts to grow again. But in fresh water the crab goes into stasis and remains soft and alive for several weeks. And you’ll find farms such as this all the way down the coast from Chumpon to the Malaysian border.

      Many of the best restaurants on Samui feature soft-shell crab on their menus. You won’t see any knights or snakes, but once you’ve tried it you won’t be looking for them anyway!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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