Recently, I had such an exceptional dish of seafood that I decided to give it a go at home…

For most of us who live away from the sea, shellfish is a little daunting. Even if we order it when eating out, the prospect of dealing with crustaceans at home is intimidating. Prawns are quite commonplace now, even supermarkets stock them frozen in packets, graded and priced according to size.

But crabs and lobsters have scared me for years. Crabmeat — shelled, sanitised and packed neatly — I can handle. I know there is no comparison with the real thing, so whenever I’m in coastal climes I have at least one meal of crabs. Recently, though, I had such an exceptional dish that I decided to give it a go at home. I managed to get some crabs; what made it easier was that they were small enough to look almost friendly.

But I didn’t have a recipe. I could have picked one out of a book or the Net, but none of them would have been exactly the same as what I had at Starlight. Starlight is an unpretentious restaurant on the road going north from Baga in Goa. It’s sitting bang on the road. There is a room or two inside, but we sat in the covered verandah, with a view of some sporadic traffic outside. The weather was still and overcast, but a ceiling fan stirred up the air nicely. We sat on hard wooden benches, at workmanlike tables of unpolished wood. No decoration, no mood music. Two tables had single men eating quietly out of large steel thaalis and washing down their meal from stubby brown bottles: Duke’s beer, the local favourite. Another, a European, drove up on a scooter, parked outside and sat down to wait without ordering or any discussion about what he was going to eat. It augured well. And as it happened, the food was so spectacular that the ambience was irrelevant.

Catch of the day

I was tempted to just go with the locals and eat the day’s set meal. But, being greedy, had to ask what was available. The catch of the day was chanak, rock fish, and they had a consignment of fresh crabs. So we ordered both. The chanak was sliced thin, rubbed with some chilli paste and then rawa fried. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten better fish, light, flaky, crisp, and without a hint of oiliness. It came in a steel plate, with a bowl of lemon wedges on the side. (Imagine an upscale restaurant in a city like Delhi: the fish will be served in a square or rectangular white plate, with a floret of fresh coriander for beauty, and one measly lemon half cut painstakingly to give it serrated edges, arranged, for maximum aesthetic effect, at an angle to a small helping of fish.)

Ordering crab masala was a departure, because we are so deprived in the North that I usually like it just boiled, without any spices interfering with the delicate sweetness of crabmeat. But for two reasons I’m glad we did. One, less important, because if I want to cook crabs in Delhi, I can’t just boil them: they’re not as nice as those freshly caught. And this gave me some idea of how to cook them. And, two, because that was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. The truth of the maxim about best food using only fresh and local ingredients was proven.

I didn’t ask for a recipe, but what went into the masala was not only visible but so fresh and fragrant that you couldn’t help but taste and identify it. Fresh green coconuts and chillies had been ground so coarsely that there were occasional white and green pieces you could bite into; there were whole black peppercorns that had been just about broken into two, and there was a mild undertone of coriander and cumin. Curry leaves and mustard seeds were sticking to the crabs, so they must have been part of the initial tempering.

I’ll try to describe how the dish looked, because my attempt isn’t quite the real McCoy. The crabs were cooked whole, claws still attached. They were covered in a generous paste of crunchy coconut and spices, with unground slivers of green and white. There was lots of greeny-black masala, enough to sit at the bottom of the plate and be wiped up later with rice. But the red of the crabs was still visible, where they weren’t coated. So I attempted it. Here goes…

Crab In Coconut Masala

Serves 4

Ingredients

For Masala paste

1 coconut, coarsely grated

6 green chillies

1 tsp black peppercorns

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp whole cumin

10 crabs, washed and drained

2 tbsp vegetable oil

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp mustard (sarson) seeds

12-16 leaves curry patta

Lemon wedges

Method: Coarsely grind masala paste ingredients, preferably on a sil-batta.

In a shallow, heavy-bottomed pan, heat oil and sauté mustard seeds and curry leaves. Over medium heat, place crabs in a single layer in the pan. Add turmeric. Turn over after about 2 minutes.

After another minute stir in coconut masala paste. Lower heat and cook, covered, for another couple of minutes. Remove from heat and serve with fresh lemon wedges on the side.

* If the masala looks too dry, add half a cup of coconut milk towards the end of cooking time

Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham’s ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).

RELATED NEWS

Gourmet Files: Authenticity, pleaseAugust 1, 2010

Gourmet Files: Recipes across bordersSeptember 18, 2010