May 2000 Table
ABACO'S LAND CRABS
by Jack Hardy
What's better than peas 'n' rice? Crab 'n' rice! No doubt about it, the high side
of Bahamian cuisine has to be crab 'n' rice which captures the oily essence of the
There are two types of land crabs found on Abaco: black (Gecarcinus lateralis)
and white (Cardisoma guanhumi)
. There are reports of black crabs in several cays but by and large the majority of
land crabs on the mainland of Abaco are white. By white, I mean greyish-yellow in
adults while juveniles have a blue overtone. They come with plenty of armament -
a large claw (usually on the right) which is somewhat ponderous and a small, sharp claw that
is much quicker in action and does not let go when it contacts flesh. The male of
the species is usually larger and has a narrow 'apron' on its underbelly. The smaller
female has a much wider apron, slightly broader-based than an equilateral triangle.
Land crabs on Abaco have their season from May to October each year. They mostly frequent
coppice land near to the sea and make their homes in burrows, the entrance to which
they block throughout the winter months while they hibernate. During the summer months they feed on buttonwood, tallyberries, sea grapes, mangroves, coco plums and
other fruits and leaves. In captivity they will happily adapt themselves to coconut,
grits, rice and just about any vegetable given to them. They pick at their food like
English ladies taking afternoon tea, careful to only take the right proportion of food
and be graceful in their delivery to the mouth. Unfortunately, in the wild they are
partial to carrion, such as dead dogs and excreta. That is why Bahamians do not fool
with crabs caught within the boundaries of a settlement.
The life cycle of a land crab is predicated on the sea. Although they may live a distance
away, it is the sea that maintains them. They have gills and these must be refreshed
with water regularly. That is why they hibernate deep enough underground to reach the water table and also why they like to come out following heavy rain. They can
survive on fresh water for a period but need salt water. Their burrows always have
water which is brackish. They store salts in their body to refresh their needs while
far from the sea. Once gravid, the female land crab listens for the call of the sea. When
the call comes, she must go to shallow ocean water and 'wash' her egg mass containing
several hundred thousand eggs. The call usually comes the three nights preceding
the full moon. The females then march to the sea, intent upon maternity.
After the eggs are released from the female crab they become part of the plankton
world. They drift into mangrove areas where tiny one-inch duplicates of adult crabs
can smother a mangrove sand bank in scurrying hordes. Like us all, they slow down
with age. They molt through soft and hard stages towards edible maturity. In January of this
year there were hundreds of juvenile two-inch crabs near to Sandy Point after an
unseasonal period of rain. Dozens were squashed onto the highway by car tyres.
The egg masses are contained in orange capsules that are intensely delicious. Forget
caviar: there have been more fights in Bahamian households over the presence of egg
capsules in steamed female crabs than there ever will be over caviar.
One of the most interesting features of land crabs is their eyes. Set on the end of
stalks and manoeuverable, they are amazingly perceptive to movement. It is said they
can discern the passage of the sun across the sky.
The Big Yard, Andros, is the leading Bahamian island for land crabs but most other
islands outside of New Providence are, like Abaco, self-sufficient. I spent four
years on Andros and crabs used to play soccer at night in my loft. Whenever I felt
I needed a crab or two for supper I just opened up the back door and let some inside. Usually,
however, people like to put their crabs in a cage for a week or two and fatten them
up. Some of the native foliage they eat is bitter and by caging them and feeding
them cooked grits and such you will be sure to have clean, sweet crabs.
How do you catch them? Let me count the ways... Expert catchers put their left palm
in front of the crab to attract its attention then scoop it up from the rear and
have it in a croacker bag in an instant. Others use a stick or machete to pin the
crab down then take a hold on the rear of the shell where the biters cannot reach. Sometimes
the back two legs are gripped. You can use your foot to hold them in place so long
as you have stout footwear. One Marsh Harbour man told me he uses two-foot long wash-house tongs to clasp the contentious crustaceans.
Land crabs are usually bought missing their legs, which renders them relatively, but
not completely, immobile. A light twist takes each leg off, leaving the last portion
outside of the body intact. Tapping the small biter at the right point with the blunt
end of a machete persuades crabs to drop it off. The crab is left with its large biter.
Once deprived of locomotion, crabs tend to bubble and foam at the mouth and wave
their remaining claw around. But it's the end of the road for them. Next stop, the
You may have to be an expert to make crab 'n' rice, but you don't have to be an expert
to make steamed crab. Just take a large pot and boil up a half inch of water. Put
in your crabs and lid the pot. Steam them for 12-15 minutes then turn off the heat.
When you are ready, pile them onto a plate and have plenty of fresh local bread handy.
Pull the apron from the crab and discard. Break the shell from the body by gripping
and pulling with a light twist. Remove the gills and discard. There will be delicious
brown fat to mop up with your bread on both sides of the shell. Don't fool with the
middle because there's a bile sac there that is bad news for your taste buds. Then
break the body in half, squeeze each half and pull off the leg segments. Chew on
these, discarding the thin bone plates. If you have a gravid female you will be blessed with
those tasty orange capsules within the fatty area. Observe to guests that they look
like orange cockroach eggs and you may get their share too.
(The recipe for Crab 'n' Rice will appear in the June edition of Abaco Journal.)
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