Updated: Jun 22, 2021
With so many of Sri Lanka's premium mud crabs exported, I'm up early to find some choice specimens for my Negombo Coconut Crab Curry.
Despite the hefty cost, one of the most sought-after dining experiences in Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo, is 'The Ministry of Crab', located in the humming dining hub that is the Old Dutch Hospital.
Sri Lankan crab curry is a real delicacy, and along with 'hoppers', a signature dish of the Teardrop Isle.
In pre-Covid times, optimistic diners lined up every night hoping for a cancellation to join the those draped with huge linen napkins tucking into enormous crustacea drawn just hours before from the island's lagoons and seas.
I've been wanting to prepare crab dishes since I arrived to stay in Negombo 5 months ago, but the local fish markets aren't the best place to go. Sri Lanka's crabs now account for over 10% of their seafood exports, with the very best despatched to Europe and South East Asia - in Singapore it's even called 'Sri Lankan Chilli Crab' - so today I'm trying a different tack.
After several months of living on edge of the lagoon, watching fishermen quietly casting nets into powder-grey waters - and at night, rather eerily, those without a boat wading through mangrove shallows with a torch seeking smaller prey - the cooling easterly breeze known in Catholic Negombo as 'the Christmas Wind', finally picks up, heralding a prime time for me to go in search of premium lagoon crabs.
Above: I'm staying on the narrow strip of land, on the Western side of the Negombo Lagoon
Dawn and dusk are the best times to collect crabs, but, so they say, not at full moon.
Wisdom or anecdote? Many believe that crabs moult during the full moon, but this belief probably arises from the fact that the moulting cycle of a market-sized crab is about 30 days and can seem to coincide with lunar cycles, but for younger crabs, where the cycle is 12-15 days, it obviously doesn't hold true. Still, I'm looking forward to the next full moon to test out this age-old anecdote and I'll let you know.
Meanwhile, standing astern on his narrow-hulled katamaran, Kumar, my boatman, as thin as his oar, silently punts into my watery garden, his angular form like a stencil against the dawn sky.
An imperative chorus cuts the stillness. Thousands of crows are flocking southwards to spend the daylight hours - from, and to where, exactly, I can't discover - but their presence means it's just after 6 am ... I awoke a half hour earlier to the daily mass, broadcast from the nearby church of Santa Barbara. Such are the daily punctuation marks of life on this lagoon.
Carl, a retired airport sniffer dog whom I look after, and I perch on boards - I'm happy that this is a two-hulled boat, many have just a single skinny hull). Silence hangs easily between us as mangroved shores recede. Dawn-silvered water ripples rhythmically behind us as we pass the jealously-guarded fishing territories of those lucky enough to have secured the rights to set up small crab hotels, fish cages about a metre square, resting on the lagoon floor.
It's languid and lovely, water and air the same colour, misting from view the built-up side of the lagoon where one arrives at Bandaranaike International Airport.
Contentedly surrounded by nature - I could happily be punted to the mouth of the lagoon and back - a poignant film moment from 'Siddhartha', Hermann Hesse's allegory of the Buddha, flickers into memory (so I'm paraphrasing ) ...
" What can you do Siddhartha?" asks a boat owner of the young man seeking work on the shores of a river in India.
"Can you catch fish ?"
"Can you paddle a boat?"
" ... well, what can you do ?"
" I can wait".
Reality meets reverie as the crab farmer I've arranged to meet punts into view.
Following, we eventually meet at his territory, and he greets me, palms together.
"Ayubowan". Long life.
Heaving up the heavy cages, there's a clattering scramble inside to reveal 10 large black mangrove crabs or Scylla serratas. Although they seem to have plenty of room, this is maximum occupancy, as they'll cannibalise one another if they're not kept well fed.
These fellows have been fattened over the last three months on a twice-daily diet of bivalves and fish, with an extra-big meal in the evening to keep them satisfied overnight. Now at about 500 gm each they're soon ready for his main buyer in Singapore.
Choosing two frisky (that means they're healthy) specimens, darkly mottled greenish black creatures with healthily marbled legs, he deftly tucks in their claws - called chelipeds (love that word!) - ties them up with strips of cotton cloth, and hands them across to Kumar, while I pass over 2400 Sri Lankan rupees (about AuD$18) to his little boy. We'd already agreed the price, and it's a fair one.
Bidding farewell, I call back to ask how often he eats crab.
"Too expensive" he says, laughing.
At more than the cost of a housekeeper's daily wage, a crab in the cage is certainly worth more than one on the plate.
Ready to Cook? .