Claws and effect: A crab food trail with Kunal Vijayakar

My earliest memory of eating crab outside of our own kitchen was at Mahesh Lunch Home. In those days, Mahesh Lunch Home had only one outlet, on Cawasji Patel Street in Fort, and it was a dark and dingy watering hole that was frequented by locals hungry for a plate of Mangalorean Fish Curry Rice and thirsty for an early drink.

The whole restaurant smelt of a mixture of cheap beer, vodka and oily masala. The lower floor was hot, steamy and seedy while the air-conditioned mezzanine level was dark, damp and dingy. It was always crowded. On the lower floor, blue-collar workers, along with tapped-out college students, knocked back bottles of strong Haywards 5000 beer with one hand, while the other shovelled mounds of Fish Gassi and Rice.

The tables would be strewn with fish bones, smears of curry, squeezed lemons, pieces of onion and half-full bottles and glasses. In the mezzanine, young advertising and marketing yuppies knocked back Old Monk and Director’s Special and eagerly devoured fried prawns, fish curry and crab with wide-eyed discovery.

We must remember that most people don’t eat seafood at home. It’s a very coastal habit, and Mumbai, though on the coast, is home to people from all over, and many vegetarians. So to someone for whom fish was a discovery, prawn and crab was a revelation. In those years, Mahesh served reasonably sized crabs in a dark coconut curry. I’d only eaten crabs at home before, so the coconut curry was aberrant, but eating crabs for me was a weekly ritual.

We grew up eating two kinds of crabs. The first were mud crabs. These were always brought home alive, and if by chance the crabs were bought dead or croaked en route, my grandmother would just chuck them away. These greenish-brown palm-sized crustaceans would scramble around the kitchen till they were caught carefully and cooked.

The other kind of crab we ate was the blue spotted swimmer crab. For some reason, it was okay if those were procured dead. Their uncooked shell was a bright abstraction of green and blue with white spots. At home, both types of crab were braised in generous amounts of oil, with lavish amounts of garlic, seasoned with just turmeric, red chilli powder and Pathare Prabhu Sambhar Masala. No onion, no grinding, no coconut.

The crab was allowed to cook in a large vessel in its own juices and the spices. As the crabs got hotter and the heat and steam created hysteria inside the pot, the shells of the crab and the vessel rattle to create a knocking sound — khad-khad-khad-khad-khad. I’m guessing that’s why this dish is called a Crab Khadkhadla.

The curry is like an evolved and tastier version of the Spanish Gambas Al Ajillo and can be eaten with rice or chapatti. The flesh from the blue crab tastes a little different from the mud crab’s. It’s distinctly sweeter and a bit chunkier and hence is easier to dig out from the shell. The mud crab, however, if caught in the right season, can be full of roe or eggs, what are also called ‘coral’ in shellfish. The eggs are normally tucked into the top shell of the female mud crab and are deliciously, briny, fatty and deep with the saltiness of the sea.

The blue spotted crab is my favourite and at a dining table, which was quite formal, we kids were taught to crack and shell a full crab and eat every morsel of flesh using just our teeth and the fingers of one hand. Even today when I watch people in seafood restaurants go at crabs with aprons, instruments and two hands, I sit back with a sense of superiority and quietly scoff at the amateurs.

The seafood revolution that started in Mumbai’s Fort created legends like Trishna, Ankur, Apoorva and Bharat Excellenssea. Meanwhile the suburbs had their own Mangalorean restaurateurs, and they brought their cooking skills to Harish Lunch Home and Gajalee, including dishes from the broader coastal region of the Konkan.

These one-time drab eateries transformed into chandeliered monuments of chrome, marble and plaster of Paris. The crabs became larger and larger and menus were expanded to include lobster, squid, tiger prawns and variations such as tandoori masala and butter garlic. Gassi and Neer Dosa became terms in common parlance. So much so that the Sri Lankan Ministry of Crab, an international seafood brand, has arrived at our shores to capitalise on our craze for crab.

But with all the zeal for seafood, Mumbai restaurants still lack the fortitude, flair and finesse to take seafood beyond masalas. The restaurants that served you potent Lobster Bisque and Baked Crabs in Parmesan are gone. The light at the end of the tunnel comes from the radiance of restaurants like Bastian and The Table. Bastian in Bandra has a menu that includes a very accomplished Butter Poached Lobster Pot Sticker with Sour Cream and Truffle Oil. A very saucy and creative Kashmiri Chilli Garlic Lobster. Traditional Thermidor with Lobster or with spicy crab. And a simple but intricate Mud Crabmeat in Béchamel.

The Table at Colaba makes the best Crab Cakes in the city, chunky flesh of crab in pan-roasted crabby patty, with smoky chipotle mayo, and greens. The Table menu also includes Rock Crab with Garlic Confit and Hollandaise, and Soft Shell Crab with Red Chilli Nam Jim, Miso, Mayonnaise and Herbs.

Which is all great, but the rightist that I am, brings me back to our homemade Crab Khadkhadla, and for me there is no recipe that beats that. So with seafood and shellfish now easily available, cleaned, shelled, de-veined and fresh on several online platforms that deliver to your doorstep, isn’t it time you started cooking crab and prawn at home?

First Published:
Mar 15, 2019 18:04 IST

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