Back home in South Africa, using fresh crab as an ingredient is very unusual, and many chefs never see fresh crabs in the shell or learn how to dress them. In the UK, I got most of my crab prepping experience, but was always fascinated by the soft shell crab featured on Asian (mostly Vietnamese) menus. It wasn’t something I’d ever come across before. (Most of these soft shell crabs are imported frozen from particularly Myanmar and Indonesia, the States consume most of what they harvest).
Here in Australia I came across fresh, never frozen soft shell crab, an amazing product. * In nature, when crabs moult, their “new” carapace only stays soft for about 2hrs, whilst it slowly absorbs the calcium from sea water and hardens. Understandably, catching them at this crucial stage is pretty tricky. So recently, some clever guy came up with the idea that if it was possible to read hormonal changes in a crab (these take place just before moulting) then it would be possible to keep the shells soft for longer. Obviously. Today, industries in the States can keep crabs soft and alive for almost a week, here on the Australian coast they are reaching 24hrs, which is opening up a market supply for Australian grown soft shell crab (mostly swimmer, sand and mud crabs).
Now I’m not a massive fan of farmed fish and prefer the wild version, but unfortunately to preserve our rapidly dwindling seafood resources, this is the way to go. Also, as is the case with whitebait, smelt or baby calamari – the problem sits with the age of the product – yes, if all you’re going to do is catch the babies, where are the adults that are supposed to breed going to come from. Soft shell crabs are young crabs, so this kind of aquaculture should be supported, or alternately, don’t eat/sell/buy any fish products at all if you want to be extreme (say good bye to your beauty products too).
Due to the years and capital that has made this produce possible, its not cheap (around $70/kg) but interestingly enough, the shell that gets moulted is 16 TIMES more valuable on, you guessed it, the Chinese market. What for? The beauty and pharmaceutical industry…
*Stats and info from this piece have been researched and loosely reproduced from Stephanie Alexander’s kitchen bible The Cooks Companion, a seriously great book.
Here in Au