Samui Wining & Dining
Catch of the Day

Take care not to catch more than you bargained for, when you tuck into Thailand’s traditional horseshoe crab!

 

2-3What is there in common between a Japanese kamikaze gourmet, a blue-blooded trilobite and Jurassic Park? (Don’t you just love these challenging food-story openings?) Well – let’s add a bit more. What sought-after seafood delicacy is widely available throughout South East Asia (and parts of America too) but is actually totally inedible? And, finally, what has any of this got to do with eggs?

      I could go on. I could mention that the ‘horseshoe crab’ (we’ll get to the explanations of all the things above in just a minute) isn’t actually a crab at all. In fact it’s not even really horse-shoe shaped. But to give it a more appropriate sort of a name sounds either disgusting or gets silly - or both. We could perhaps start off with ‘giant flat underwater cockroach thing’ or ‘inedible prehistoric living fossil crab’; but that’s going nowhere fast. This ‘crab’ is a) quite literally a prehistoric creature that hasn’t changed in half a million years; is b) actually related to the spider family (arachnids); c) contains no nice soft crab meat – if you accidentally eat any part of the inner shell you’ll get quite dizzy and sick, and d) it bleeds. Yes, just like when you stamp on a big fat spider, this underwater delicacy bleeds. Okay, the blood just happens to be blue – but we’re not colour-prejudiced . . . are we?

      All of which is probably enough to make you want to rush out and buy a couple of kilos of nice, normal, familiar lobsters. But hold hard, my hearties. This big flat oddity is not only a rarity, it’s also something of a cult. It needs skilful preparation if you want to eat any part of it, is considered to be restorative and healing, and on top of that is now being harvested commercially for its pharmaceutical value. Plus the fact that it tastes quite err . . . nice – although a bit fishy – if you prepare and cook it properly. And that brings us back to eggs.

      Think sturgeon. Think caviar. Think roe. This huge, flat ‘crab-thing’ is only eaten when it is filled with thousands of crab-thing eggs – crab roe. Horseshoe crab is not difficult to cook, but whoever removes the eggs (i.e. the cook) must know the correct way to do this to prevent the toxic parts of the crab from spoiling the eggs. If the eggs are contaminated, you can get ‘somewhat ill’. This flat little fun boy (well, actually fun girl) is in the same arena as the puffer fish.

       This is where the kamikaze gourmets come into the picture. Japanese haut cuisine likes to rise to the challenge of preparing and cooking the deadly puffer fish – fugu. It has to be done just right. It contains a neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, for which there is no known antidote. (There is now a test kit available which works along the lines of a pregnancy test kit to check for restaurant-based tetrodotoxin!) And so does the horseshoe crab – although, it has to be said, it’s in much smaller doses. (Oddly, you find this in the rough-skin newt too. But that’s yet to make it onto menus.) The trick seems to be to cook it all first. Don’t attempt to crack it open and start scooping. Boil it, fry it, bake it – whatever – then whack it and scoop out the roe, which is both green and orange coloured. Expert opinion seems to vary about which colours are okay to eat. So the basic advice here is to only eat the horseshoe crab at a restaurant which has plenty of customers. A paucity of diners speaks for itself.

       Flippancy and ineffable humour aside, this flat and curious living fossil is having a bad time right now. It’s a bit sad that it’s been able to hang about for so long (its main problems used to be only the clumsy feet of dinosaurs stomping about on Jurassic beaches) and yet today it’s dying out. Another of today’s problems is that the roe is also considered an aphrodisiac in these parts and can command a high price. This has led to theft, poaching and over-harvesting. Populations have also plummeted (gone a bit flat?) due to taking large numbers to supply both the eel and whelk bait industries. Additionally medical research has decimated their numbers.

      The crab has blue blood which is rich in copper, and has been found to clot almost immediately in the presence of certain toxins and bacteria, making it ideal for numerous research projects. (The human flu vaccine was developed on the back of this funny little fossil.) Even studies done on the eyes of the horseshoe crab have caused advances to be made in the study of human optics. And the shell extract is also used in the manufacture of dressings for the treatment of burn patients. Some of these special dressings have been shown to speed up healing time of injuries by up to 50 percent. So – if you get a chance – try some before they’ve become finally extinct!

      Yum kai meng da is the only way that Thais usually prepare horseshoe crab eggs – the roe is mixed into salad such as yam khai maeng da (i.e. som tam salad) to give it an extra bite. But much of the time the cooked trilobite is simply flipped over onto its back and thumped with a big spoon. The prehistoric shell collapses under this unexpected technological assault, obligingly splitting in two, one half acting as a kind of bowl and the other containing all the roe. Also the roe can be removed after cooking and mixed with egg to make an interesting if somewhat crunchy omelette. (Nothing that a hefty dollop of garlic mayo won’t fix.)

      It’s unlikely to be on the menu in your resort – in the same way that you’ll not find fugu there. It pops up from time to time, most-often in food fairs and festivals, although some local beachside restaurants in Bang Po are reported to stock it. But if you’re here for more than a week, look out for it. It’s a must. It’ll be almost like eating fried dodo-bird! Get some while you can!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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