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Catch of the Day – Crab

A bit like aquatic versions of spiders, crabs have legs that are jointed; but in addition to the eight legs they have two more, the claws. That’s why they’re referred to as decapods and not octopods. They’re quick to move but don’t miss much either; they may not have eyes in the back of their heads, but they might as well: with their eyes on stalks, their range of vision is all-round, and the stalks act like periscopes, letting them observe what’s going on while the crab itself is buried in the sand.

Crabs can be divided into some 6,700 different types, and there are approximately 4,500 species that we know about. About a fifth of these are semi-terrestrial and freshwater crabs. Unfortunately, a few species of freshwater crabs are under the threat of extinction due to human activities.

Crabs are sociable creatures; they communicate with each other through sound. They wave their pincers or produce drumming or flapping sounds to get the attention of other crabs. They work together to collect food and protect their families. They are very successful breeders. Some crabs can lay and carry up to a million eggs at a time. Crabs almost always live in water of some kind – think oceans, rivers, freshwater and saltwater lakes. They’re also capable of living in volcanic vents as well as under the ice.

They’ll eat both plant and animal matter and enjoy foods such as different types of algae, worms, molluscs, and other crustaceans (including crabs). For example, baby turtles and bird carcasses are delicacies for saltwater crabs who feed on animals that they find washed up on the shoreline. Crabs use their pincers to hold the food or prey, tear small pieces off it and move into the mouth.

Their eating habits might appear to be almost decorous, but crabs themselves are definitely uncanny, mechanical-looking creatures, with a few that appear so outlandish that people just don’t believe that they exist. When told about the coconut crab, no less a figure than Charles Darwin thought it was just some far-fetched story. With legs apparently a metre long and able to crack open a coconut and eat the contents, this crab seemed to have stepped out of a fable. Darwin spotted his first coconut crab off the coast of Sumatra and had to eat his words. He called the crabs, ‘monstrous’.

Plenty of others share his feelings. The crab lives in the tropics and you might think you’re safe if you avoid the beaches. Not so. Those who are afraid of them walk with trepidation through coconut groves fronting the sea, nervously checking the treetops. And with good reason. The coconut crab is able to climb up to loosen the coconuts there before making its way down. Sometimes though, it will lose its grip. Who wants to be hit on the head by a four-kilogram monster?

Like others of their kind, coconut crabs first live in the sea and search for a shell to live in. As they grow bigger and bigger, they adopt different ever larger shells. Finally, their skeleton is strong enough not to need any shell at all and they break free. They’re now the crustacean equivalent of the Incredible Hulk. They can eat kittens, chicken and rotting fruit.

Other types of crabs are smaller but still fairly disquieting. The green crab is jocularly known ‘the cockroach of the sea’, for being somewhat indestructible. Aggressive fighters, they have five teeth behind each eye and can eat just about anything they find. The decorator crab, meanwhile, crushes its food while in its abdomen – it has teeth there.

No matter how they look, crabs are on the menu just about everywhere. People love them for their taste and also for their health-giving benefits. They’re low in calories and saturated fats. They are a good way to get protein, along with Vitamin B12, magnesium, copper, zinc and phosphorous, but alas they are also high in both cholesterol and sodium.

Crab can be enjoyed in an immense variety of ways. How about black pepper crab, often served in Singapore? Simply delicious. Or a Vietnamese-style crab and tomato broth with plenty of shrimp paste? Equally tempting. Crab in oyster sauce is also highly popular; it’s originally from China, but is a popular dish across huge swathes of South-East Asia.

Last but not least, there’s no need to skimp on dessert when it comes to crab. Try crab ice-cream, which originates in Hokkaido in Japan. It’s quite hard to get people to try it outside Japan, and it’s definitely not on sale in most parts of the world, so simply make your own: freeze crab stock along with skimmed milk powder, a dozen egg yolks and a bit of sugar and you’ll have a tasty way to finish a meal!


Dimitri Waring

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