Australians don’t eat nearly enough crabs. They’re seen as the poor cousin to the lobster and even the prawn, despite the fact that crab is probably tastier than either one. The question is, why? “They’re pretty fiddly. They’re relatively expensive if you want to eat a whole crab and it’s quite time-consuming and messy,” admits John Susman, who, as founder of premium seafood distributor Fisheads, is in a pretty good position to know. “But they are bloody fantastic!”
The specialist fisherman has had a long history with all things crabby, claiming his first taste of blue swimmer was before he can even recall. “I was probably four or five,” he says. “I remember walking out behind my dad, who was trailing a baby’s bath in calf-deep water and we were dabbing for blue swimmer crabs in the St Vincent’s Gulf.”
Because Susman specialises in providing high-end seafood to some of Melbourne’s top restaurants – including Circa and the Albert Park Hotel, Red Lantern, The Bridge Room, Sokyo and The Fish Shop – he knows a thing or two about selecting the best. “The thing that you should be looking for with a crab – a mud crab, spanner crab, snow crab or a three-spot crab or any of the other crab – you’ll either buy them live or cooked,” he explains. “Except blue swimmer crabs, you’ll find in the markets dead, uncooked and we refer to them in the trade as green.”
If you’re in the market to cook a live crab yourself, it’s important to select the right one. Susman suggests that the more active it is, the better quality your crab will be. “With a live crab, you want it to be lively,” he advises. “Whether it’s the claw or the legs, you want it to be showing some level of resistance if you were to push them.”
One easy test to ensure your crab isn’t in bad shape is to pinch his paddle flipper. If it has some resistance, it means the crab’s full. If it’s light and easy to press through and remains dented, that’ll suggest there’s not a lot of meat in your crab. Likewise, weighing a couple of crabs in your hands to determine which is the heaviest will ensure you get the meatiest on offer.
If you do happen to be in the market for a cooked crab, it’s important to observe the state of its shell, checking for any blackening around the claws and legs – you don’t want that.
Susman also advises that you use your nose when selecting a crab. The scent of ammonia, for example, is always bad news. “That’s an indicator that the crab’s breaking down, that all the bugs in its lungs are turning into other things,” he explains. “You want it to be smelling sweet and clean, with either a cooked crab or a green crab.”
While this advice holds true for crabs in general, Susman’s speciality is the spanner crab, found off the coast of Mooloolaba on Queensland’s southeast Coast. Bright orange in colour and extremely sweet, the crab is unique both for its flavour and the way it’s caught. “Because it lives in the sand in Mooloolaba, it doesn’t eat a range of things including weed and dead fish and crap like a lot of other crabs will eat,” says Susman. “Its food of preference is prawn, lobster and scallop. That’s one of the reasons it tastes so incredibly sweetly.”
Spanner crabs are among the most sustainable of Australian fisheries, with careful regulation of their numbers in place almost since the beginning of their harvest. It was, in fact, the first fishery to be regulated. Scientists determine the number of crabs to be caught each season and the industry shuts down completely while the females are breeding.
Unlike other seafood, its method of production doesn’t disturb the seabed or accidentally harvest unwanted animals. “We use a trap called a dilly, which is essentially a flat piece of mesh that the crabs walk onto but can’t get off,” says Susman. “They get caught on these mesh flat traps and everything else just swims or floats or crawls away. We pull them up and they’ll be the only things there.”
But Susman reckons it’s the business of fishermen to think about the sustainability of seafood stocks, leaving diners to the important questions: what is the best thing to drink with a great plate of spanner crab? “Anything,” laughs Susman. “I think because of its sweetness, something crisp and dry is the right way to go. From riesling through chenin blanc – and of course it’s pretty hard to beat a really good pilsner.”