Updated: Nov 26, 2022
Sri Lankan Crab Curry, a signature seafood dish from the shores of the Negombo Lagoon
cooked at home with Sri Lanka's premium cinnamon - Cinnamon Alba
A delicately-spiced, lightly-textured curry with an exceptional aroma - preparing this with fresh spices is a joy in itself!
ANNA'S TIP I'm not using curry powder in this recipe. Home cooking often uses pure spices ground freshly so that the the flavour can be controlled to really highlight the flavours of the meat. The delicately-flavoured crab meat is complemented here with fresh curry leaves and cinnamon, see my blog: The Spice That Put Sri Lanka On The Map
For this recipe I am using the very highest grade of cinnamon available in the cinnamon market anywhere. It’s called ‘Cinnamon Alba’ for the pale colour of the thin quills whose immediate sweetness is followed by a bright tang without any bitterness, the delicate texture and the gorgeous aroma.
It’s such a cleansing flavour hit that a small piece is a very pleasant mouth freshener – remember Cinnamon Tic Tacs? … a piece of Cinnamon Alba is more tasty and no sugar, and True Ceylon Cinnamon has health benefits too, which Cassia cinnamons from Vietnam, China and Indonesia do not.
True Ceylon Cinnamon is graded into qualities. 'Cinnamon Alba' shows densely-packed quills, yielding a sweet, pure flavour with outstanding aroma (top upper quill)
Medium and poor qualities are coarser, darker and more fibrous, with less aroma and flavours that can be bitter. Below: cinnamon alba on the left shows its pedigree.
ANNA'S TIP Buy your cinnamon as quills, reassuring yourself that when you grind or grate it for powder, your spice is the quality you paid for, and not a mix of who-knows-what.
NOW FOR THE CRAB CURRY Cooking time 37 minutes
Here's what you’ll need for each person
Prepare all the Ingredients before you start cooking, as this all happens very quickly!
1x 500 - 600 gm (in shell) crab per person - this will yield about 150 km of white meat (in the claws and the cavities of the 'purse' on the underside ), and about 50-60 gm of brown meat. I'm cooking a freshly caught lagoon mud crab.
The Aromatic Spices : the 3 C’s
Sri Lankan Cinnamon 3 cm broken into pieces. Use the best quality you can find
Cloves - 5 whole
Cardamom - 2 whole pods crushed
All the curry flavourings
Fresh ginger - 2 cm, peeled, sliced and finely chopped
Garlic cloves - 4 large, finely chopped
Pandanus leaf - 12 cm (optional – it enhances the aroma, barely affecting the flavour – although pandanus leaves that I use in Bali add a distinctive colour and flavour … so this is very regionally dependent)
Red onion - ½ large onion, sliced into slivers
Tomato - 1 large, chopped
Curry Leaves - 35 fresh or dried, whole
Red chilli powder - 1 very heaped teaspoon
Turmeric powder - 1 level teaspoon
Black pepper - 1 rounded teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
Salt - half a level teaspoon
Green chillies - 2 sliced diagonally, seeds left in
Lime - 1quartered and de-seeded for garnish
Vegetable oil of frying – 1 tablespoon
Wok and stirring spoon, and a warmed serving dish
Prepare Your Crab with Kindness
Crabs are best cooked immediately after killing, and once a crab dies if it’s not immediately cleaned then the crab is unfit for human consumption.
So trying to do this as humanely as possible, the RSPCA recommends putting the crab in the freezer for 45 - 60 minutes so that it becomes slow and lethargic - and possibly desensitized. Don't freeze it completely.
This is preferable to dropping it into boiling water, which apart from all the other considerations, causes the animal to contract with stress and toughens the the meat.
You can prepare the crab pieces in various ways, but for this recipe :
Lay the crab on its back and with a tea towel beneath it or the board, for traction, and twist off the front black-tipped claws - this is where most of the best meat is.
Now put the crab on its back with the eyes towards you and, using both hands, push up the six legs. Press your two thumbs either side of the eyes and push away the triangular ‘purse’ or 'apron' (that is the central body part).
Male or female crab? On a female crab (which may have roe beneath this plate), the apron is oval shaped, and on a male it is triangular.
Don't wash all the flavour out!
You will now need to clean the crab by peeling off the back shell and discarding it.
Use your fingers to pull off the feathery gills - called 'old man's fingers' - at either side which are just attached at the shell's edge (it is essential to remove these - they should not be eaten - very bitter).
Clean out the remaining guts - or not - depending on your taste. The brown organs are strongly flavoured and may be to your taste. In any case, don't wash this shell too vigorously, or you'll loose all the tasty bits.
You can cut the crab in half or quarters - for this recipe it's quartered.
So, now using a heavy knife, cut the round purse into four with the legs attached.
This exposes the white meat, which can be picked out.
At this point you could freeze your crab prior to cooking it or cook it, but remember that cooking times are a little faster when you have an already cleaned crab
Here's a very helpful video showing crab cleaning from the Sydney Fish Market - YouTube
DON'T FORGET to crack the big claws with a mallet or crackers to allow all the cooking flavours to penetrate the meat, just before you start cooking.
How to Cook
Choose a wok which will allow you to give the crabs plenty of room to be tossed around
Heat the oil in the wok on high heat.
Fry the garlic and ginger 1 minute, stirring
Add cloves, cinnamon and cardamom and cook for 2 minutes, stirring
Add the pandanus leaf (optional)
Add the curry leaves and fry for 2 minutes, stirring
Add onions, stir for 30 seconds
Add turmeric powder, stir for 30 seconds
Add salt and chilli powder, stir for 30 seconds
Add tomatoes, stir for 30 seconds
Add the green chillies, stir for 30 seconds
Add all of the crab and stir to cover the crab in all of the other ingredients
Add 1 tablespoon water, place lid on wok and cook on ‘high’ for 15 minutes
Remove from heat, stir thoroughly, reduce heat by ¼
Add 1 tablespoon water, stir and re-cover.
Cook for a further 5 minutes, or until water starts to collect on the inside of the lid.
Now reduce heat by another ¼, to half , re-cover and cook for a further 10 minutes.
Add the coconut milk, stir, and cook without lid until desired gravy consistency.
Turn entire contents into heated dish and serve immediately.
How to serve ?
This dish is traditionally served in Sri Lanka with a vegetable called ‘drumsticks’, or murunga, but sliced okra stir fried with a little garlic, is a delicious alternative.
Some serve it with coriander or parsley leaves for a pop of colour, although I find neither flavour a pleasing addition. A squeeze of little lime is my choice, but really, the curry is good just the way it is.
A bowl of rice? – I prefer the ‘heritage’ varieties of red rice, with their coarser, nutty flavour and very low GI (so you won’t feel hungry quickly, and much healthier and nutritious in many ways), and a salad.
Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoy this one! If you would like to receive my stories and postcards straight into your mailbox, please consider subscribing to my monthly newsetter.
OTHER SPICE VOYAGER RECIPES and STORIES FROM SRI LANKA
The Spice That Put Sri Lanka On The Map - the truly fascinating story of Cinnamon
Postscript 5 July, 2021 ; https://wapo.st/2UrjnYA - from The Telegraph, reporting on Animal Rights.