Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Mud crab with curry leaf butter

O Tama Carey is the owner of Lankan Filling Station. Her first cookbook is Lanka Food. She is a food editor of The Saturday Paper.

Credit: Photographed remotely by Earl Carter

Before you dismiss the idea of cooking crab because you think it’s too hard, please give me a moment to persuade you that it’s not. I think most people will agree the flesh from a crab is delicious. It’s succulent, sweet and slightly salty, with an air of luxury about it. The sticking point for most is the hard-to-crack exterior and the effort needed to extract its delicate insides. For me, this is part of its beauty; you make a little effort, get a little messy, take a little time, and then reap the benefits.

The first hurdle is knowing how to choose a good crab. This recipe calls for mud crabs, which are generally big and do sit at the more expensive end, but their ample flesh is the reward. To choose one, pick it up – you want it to feel heavy – and then also look at the underside. If it looks a little dirty, this indicates the crab is older and therefore will have more flesh. If you are choosing by looks alone, I would go for a feisty one.

The flavour of crab is versatile, rich and soft. It’s delicious boiled with some sort of dipping sauce to go with it; an aioli is good, as is a nahm jim-type number. It goes beautifully with a rich tomato sauce, particularly with an anchovy or two melted into it to amplify the briny notes, and, a personal favourite, in a crab curry where the sweet flesh sucks in the flavours of chilli and spice. One of its most perfect matches, though, is butter. You will notice this recipe does use a large amount. Please don’t be alarmed by this, just accept that sometimes it’s needed.

The crab juices mingling with the butter make for a delicious sauce, which means you will need to serve something to sop it all up. Bread is the easiest option, but boiled potatoes or rice work equally well. My favourite way, which can take a little more effort, is to eat the crab first, wash your hands, and then cook some fresh pasta, a long variety, and toss it through the remaining sauce.

Whichever way you look at it, eating crab is a messy experience. My advice is to approach it in sections. The claw is the most accessible; the smaller legs offer sweetness yet take a bit more fiddling. I suggest using your teeth to chew and extract. The body itself contains some of my favourite flesh, but it does have many cavities you need to manoeuvre around. With practice it will get easier; however, there is never a time when a well-placed napkin, or several, won’t come in handy.


Mud crab with curry leaf butter

Serves 2

  • 150g butter, medium dice
  • 2.5 cups / 20g / 20 sprigs curry leaves
  • 1 mud crab between 1kg and 1.5kg
  • 4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • salt flakes for seasoning
  • 1 tsp / 2g freshly ground white pepper
  • squeeze of lemon juice
  1. Place the diced butter in a small saucepan. Add two cups of the curry leaves on top and put this over a very low heat. Allow the butter to gently melt, stirring through the curry leaves as you go (about five to seven minutes). Once the butter is liquefied, leave it cooking until the curry leaves start to crisp. This will take about 20 minutes. Turn the heat off, strain the butter through a fine strainer, discard the leaves and set aside.
  2. Place the mud crab in your freezer for about half an hour. This sends it to sleep a little, which makes the process of cutting it up nicer for both of you. Once it is sufficiently stilled, remove from the freezer and place the top shell down on a board with the large claws farthest from you. Take a heavy cleaver and swiftly cut your crab in half from the top down, leaving one claw on each side. Hold one half over a bowl and remove the top shell, pulling it from the underside flap. Discard the shell but be sure to keep any of the nice juicy bits. Cut this piece in half again and use either the back of your cleaver or a pestle to gently tap the large claw and the section just above until it cracks a little. Repeat with the other half and place the pieces of crab in the bowl with any reserved juices.
  3. Place a wok over a low heat and add in the butter, the garlic and the remaining curry leaves. Season with a little salt. Cook this very gently while stirring. The butter will sizzle and foam and the curry leaves will spit. Continue cooking until the garlic starts to colour (about three to four minutes).
  4. Add in a splash of water, as well as the crab and reserved juices, and turn up the heat to medium. Use a large spoon to gently turn and coat the crab pieces.
  5. Once the juicy bits have started to sizzle, place a lid over your wok and cook until the crab is ready (about 10-14 minutes). Lift the lid and turn and baste your crab pieces occasionally. To tell if the crab is ready, look for colour: it will quickly start turning orange. To tell when it’s fully cooked, use a thin metal skewer to pierce into the claw where you have cracked the shell. Leave the skewer in for a moment or two, pull it out, and if it’s warm, the crab should be ready.
  6. Remove from the heat, add the pepper and season with more salt and a bit of lemon, but only just enough to taste in the background.
  7. Mix through and serve immediately with a carb of your choice, many napkins, crab crackers and claws, and a finger bowl.

NB: Curry leaf butter can be made ahead of time and kept in the fridge. If I were you, I would make a large batch so you can keep some in the fridge. It’s delicious with many things.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 24, 2021 as "With shells on".

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