Mon, March 6th, 2017


The mud-to-magnificence story of Scylla serrata, the coveted mangrove crab of Sri Lanka.

Words: Yomal Senerath-Yapa

Photographs: Menaka Aravinda and Vishwathan Tharmakulasingham

The Negombo lagoon stretched before us in 3horizontal stripes: a bar of green made up by the thick mangroves, sandwiched between the broader bands of blue sky and shimmering water. This lagoon is home to Sri Lanka’s culinary black pearl: the mud crab. It has scuttled its way to become the country’s latest international mascot, an exotic symbol of high quality. We embarked on these waters with Dharshan, with the intent of gathering a crustacean harvest. A good number of fishing traps are laid each day in this lagoon by fishermen. These traps, called ‘Thettiyas’, are circular, made of nylon net, and baited with a little silver fish. The more the fish rots, the more the crab finds irresistible. Once you have got this carrion gourmand entangled in your net, it has to be handled very carefully. Dharshan has to do fancy finger work to evade the angry pincers, which click incessantly at the air with murderous intent.

Though it doesn’t come in the proverbial (and appetising) red or orange, the Sri Lankan mud crab (also known as the lagoon crab or the mangrove crab) is often called “the fleshiest and most delicious “of all crabs. The other wonderful thing about this crustacean is that it can be savoured any time of the year. When it is off-season on one coast of the country, you can fish it on the other coast. Gone, however, are the days when Sri Lankans could enjoy at whim this delicacy, which was swimming close to their backyards. About two decades ago lagoon crab was discovered by international gourmets. Prices this crab fetch today are such that all the good specimens get sent abroad. But you cannot judge a meaty crab from the type of the waters in which it is found; nor can you determine its goodness from how long it was dead before being cooked. While some crabs can be packed with meat, others may have none at all. This kind of variation is only natural. The hardest thing to find in a local fish market today would be a mud crab. If you do come across a handsome specimen with claws equally proportioned and robust

in the local market, it is ten to one that it would be a water crab. After cooking it, you can only pick about and wonder where all the meat vanished into. “If you really want to eat good crab in Sri Lanka,” says Dharshan, “you’ll have to pay more than Singapore does. “For Singapore is where most of our mud crab goes to. It was where the mania for our crustacean began, and where the phrase ‘Sri Lankan mud crab’ isso magicked, diners are drawn to establishments advertising it like bees to honey. The star dish of the Singaporean seafood venues, the Chili Crab, is best loved when cooked with our mud crab. Though the name has its magic allure, the price can be disenchanting for the restaurateur, so other, commoner crab varieties are supplanted. So keep a keen lookout and make sure you get the original mud crab. Dharshan, concerned for the future of this delicacy, believes the government should protect the mud crab with branding and legislation.