Sri Lankan Crab Curry
They say that you can never go home again. In some ways, the business of growing up and growing old is about coming to terms with this reality. The place you miss, the place you crave, the place where you truly belong–that place no longer exists, if it ever did. Perhaps this is so for everyone, but for us rootless cosmopolitans who belong simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, the old adage is a truth that defines our lives.
No wonder the smells and tastes of childhood are so powerful; they take us as close to home as we can get, however fleeting the experience may be. In Sri Lanka, our relatives in Negombo would make platters of curry with enormous lagoon crabs whenever our family would come to visit. As a child, I could never eat crab curry without getting the curry all over my hands and wrists, dirtying the glass of water I had to keep handy to douse the fire that burned my lips and tongue. An uncle looked on in wordless disgust–he himself possessed the remarkable ability to dismantle a crab with the fingertips of one hand, keeping even his palm clean. (Breaking things apart while keeping his hands clean was a specialty of this particular uncle of mine, but that is a story for another time and venue.)
In North Carolina, making this crab curry was an all-day family event, beginning with an early morning trip to the docks to catch the crabs ourselves. The tide had to either be going out or coming in. If the water level was too low, the crabs would have retreated to deeper waters; too high, and you couldn’t see when they began nibbling at their chicken neck bait. My mother, who only likes to spend time outdoors if there’s a great meal waiting at the end of it, was particularly good at tricking the crabs into her net. Then came the nasty part, from which my sister and I were thankfully excused: maiming the crabs by pulling off their claws and killing them by tearing off their top shells. Once as a teenager, I got stuck with this task when my dad was out of town. I was revolted, but it taught me that I could indeed live up to one of my maxims: don’t eat anything you couldn’t kill yourself. The reward for all this labor came when the large mound of crabs was brought to the table, steaming hot, bathed in a fiery curry fragrant with roasted coconut and spices.
Crack into a crab claw, suck out the mingled juices of the crab and coconut milk. Dig into the sweet flesh of the crab’s body, coated with the dark flavor of roasted coconut, chile, and coriander. Eating crab is a primal experience; you have to get your hands dirty.
How does it taste? It tastes of the sea, of the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It tastes of lands both far and near. It’s the taste of the familiar, of family, and of childhood. It tastes of home.
Sri Lankan Crab Curry
Part I: Making the masala
3/4 c. unsweetened dried coconut (you may also use fresh)
1 1/2 tbsp. fennel seeds
1 tbsp. black peppercorns
6 fresh curry leaves
2 tbsp. coconut milk
Combine the dried coconut, fennel, pepper, and curry leaves and roast in dry skillet over medium-high fire, stirring constantly, until coconut is the color of, I hate to say it, hamster shavings.
Let mixture cool and grind in a blender with 2 tbsp. coconut milk.
Part II: The Curry
1 med. onion, sliced thinly
1/2 piece of ginger, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
6 curry leaves
2 tbsp. peanut oil
2 tbsp. Jaffna or Trincomalee-style curry powder (see note)
1 tsp. paprika
1/2-2 tsp. cayenne pepper (to taste)
1 tbsp. tamarind pulp, soaked in hot water
1 c. coconut milk
fresh lime juice, to taste
salt, to taste
Heat oil in 6 quart pot. Saute onion, garlic, ginger, and curry leaves until onions begin to color (about 7 minutes). Add curry powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, one teaspoon salt and stir. Cook 1 minute more. Squeeze tamarind pulp and add tamarind water to pot. Add dried coconut masala and coconut milk. Stir and cook 10 minutes, until curry is thick. Taste and adjust seasonings with additional salt, cayenne and/or lime if necessary.
Part III: Cleaning the Crabs
18 Atlantic blue crabs (You may also use Pacific Dungenous, but use fewer crabs)
1 tsp. turmeric
With a pair of tongs, lift each crab out of the bag. Be sure it’s alive and kicking. If it seems to be dead, discard. Here comes the nasty bit. Carefully grasp crab from the back with your left hand. Cover your right hand in a dish towel and pry it’s claws off and reserve. Then, on a flat surface, turn the crab upside down, hold the top shell down with your left hand, and, grasping the crab’s legs with your right hand, pull the body away from the top shell. This kills the crab far more quickly humanely than the barbaric American custom of dropping them alive into boiling water.
Discard top shell. Under running water, pull off the “dead man’s fingers” that cover the body. Clean out any dark green matter and the pink organs (anyone know what these are?). However, reserve the orange eggs from the female crabs. Last, either with a large knife or your hands, split the two sides of the crab in two.
When you’ve done about half of the crabs, sprinkle with a dusting of turmeric. Sprinkle another dusting of turmeric when you’ve finishing cleaning all the crabs.
Add crabs to curry. Stirring and tossing occasionally, cook over medium heat for ten minutes.
Serve with white rice and accompaniments.
Note: Jaffna-style curry powder may be ordered here. You can make Trincomalee-style curry powder by roasting dried whole chilies and coriander seeds separately, grinding in a spice grinder and combining. Use 2 parts dried chilies to 1 part coriander seed (measure by weight). Do not even think of using any other kind of curry powder, particular not the foul substance sold at Western grocery stores.