Food for Thought


Karkinos was a giant crab which came to the aid of the Hydra in its battle with Herakles at Lerna. The hero crushed it beneath his foot but as a reward for its service the goddess Hera placed it amongst the stars as the constellation Cancer.

As the sidestepping, armoured tanks of the animal kingdom, crabs mostly live in seawater, but some prefer fresh water, or live on land. The smallest are the size of a pea; the largest grows to a leg span of four metres. About 7,000 species are known. For me it is the king of shellfish; in the UK we have Brown, Spider, Velvet Swimming and King crabs to choose from. They are plentiful and easy to cook; you are rewarded with masses of sweet, flaky meat and though a treat it’s not nearly as costly as lobster.

I’ve spent many a happy morning face-down, hanging over a harbour wall in various Cornish seaside towns, with small children in tow, armed with mackerel lines and an expensive pack of bacon to lure the hapless victims. You lob a bit of bacon on a hook, drop the line into the briny water and sit back for the crabs to come literally running. Several buckets-worth quickly fill, and at the end of the day we tip them discreetly back into the sea.

As a small girl myself I loved nothing more than rock-pooling and crab-hunting. My brothers got the manly jobs of overturning rocks to expose the crabs lurking underneath, while I got the “girly” task of catching them. Big ones could give a nasty nip and I’d spend the day with throbbing fingers. We’d present them to my poor mother who had the fun job of cooking them and then, armed with whatever weaponry we could find to gain access to the sweetest flesh in the claws and legs (rolling pins, hammers…), we’d feast at the newspaper-strewn table.

A perfect summer’s lunch is sitting in the sun with a fresh crab sandwich, nothing added but a squeeze of lime and a slick of mayonnaise. Recently we have been really spoilt, since my son’s gorgeous girlfriend arrives from Devon with a Tupperware filled to the brim with freshly-cooked white crabmeat, super-fresh and ready to go. For, much as I love to eat them, I’m not a big fan of cooking crabs – they somehow manage to fix their gaze on you as you lower them into the water, all-seeing and all-knowing of what awaits. Their pain and disapproval hangs over any festive meal like a black cloud. Yet fresh crabmeat is irreplaceable, a world away from those sad, frozen supermarket packs, which no amount of garlic, lemon juice and chilli can improve.

We are so lucky surrounded by our nutrient-rich tidal seas, yet as a sea-locked nation we eat surprisingly little of our abundant fish, unless it’s battered and comes with chips. Crab can be an acquired taste, perhaps as a result of squeamishness about its inescapable crab-ness, with those eyes, whiskers and claws. Removed from the shell, crabmeat isn’t so frightening, and in the past decade or so chefs like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Rick Stein have done much to popularise recipes.

Crab is a seasonal treat (April to November) but sustainable and home-grown. What better way to get the family eating around the table together than by asking them to choose their weapon first? (Don’t forget the newspaper tablecloth.)
Most fishmongers sell fresh-cooked crab and many supermarkets sell pre-cooked white and brown crab meat. If cooking it at home, retain all the shell to boil up for a delicious stock afterwards, perfect for dishes like fish stew and risotto. Or stir a small tub of prepared crabmeat through a rich tomato sauce and serve with fresh cooked pasta.

Crab Cakes

2cm fresh root ginger, peeled and grated
1 red chillies, seeds removed, finely chopped
250g white crabmeat
1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander
2 spring onions, finely sliced
2 free range eggs
7-8 tbsp dried breadcrumbs
plain flour, for dusting
25ml olive oil

In a bowl combine the ginger, chilli, crabmeat, coriander and spring onions. Crack in one egg and mix well, then stir in four tablespoons of the breadcrumbs.

Divide the crab cake mixture into six equal portions and mould into patties. Place on a tray and chill for about 20 minutes before cooking.

Place some plain flour and the remaining breadcrumbs in separate shallow dishes.

Break the remaining egg onto a plate and whisk with a fork. Then dip each crab cake into the flour, the egg, and the crumbs, in that order, to give an even coating. Repeat with the remaining crab cakes.

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan and fry the crab cakes for two to three minutes on each side, or until crisp and golden-brown all over. Transfer to a baking tray and cook at 200°C for five to ten minutes, or until piping hot all the way through.

Serve the crab cakes with sweet chilli jam and a squeeze of lime.

Lydia Brownlow was a cookery editor at Good Housekeeping Magazine and a contributor to The Daily Beast. Latterly she has been inspiring children to cook. More info at


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