Let's get cracking on what makes crabs the hottest commodity on Colombo’s brunch menus.
Paired with spicy curries, peppery pastes and now, your morning eggs, crabs have claimed their place as the favourite crustaceans in town. They’re packed with protein and omega-3 fatty polyunsaturated acids, which reduce heart disease, aid brain development and go so darn well with a little bit of hollandaise, it’s impossible to resist.
Walk into any brunch hotspot in town and casually inquire about the most sought after item on its menus, and chances are you’ll be directed to their crab eggs benedict (‘benny’ for short. Welcome to the world of brunch lingo). Gone are the days of pancake stacks dripping in butter and maple syrup; or the era of the waffle, topped with everything from chicken mayonnaise to chocolate sauce. Today’s brunch-goer wants delicious, indulgent and guilt-free food, that checks most of the boxes on their personal checklist (decadent, relatively healthy, Instagrammable), contains minimal trans-fat and nothing processed (shudder). So, what is it about crabs that make them such superstars? I turned to Shana Dandeniya of holistic eatery, Café Kumbuk, and Thisakya Senanayake, the brains behind Let’s Brunch and The Fat Crab to talk about the secrets of crab’s success.
Undeniably, island culture has a lot to do with it. Being surrounded by thickly populated stretches of ocean, Sri Lanka commands some of the best seafood in the world. “That we have such phenomenal access to fresh produce on a daily basis is incredible,” says Shana. “Crabs bring out the local flavour of the island, and so the meat is a hit with both the locals and travelers, who want to experience authentic Sri Lankan taste.” It’s not hard to imagine that the thought of freshly caught crab meat on a breakfast platter makes every day a good day. But, crab’s appeal during breakfast time extends to more than the need to experience local flavour. “If you look at the profile of the meat, crab also has a great, flexible flavour,” continues Shana. “Smokey crab meat pairs excellently with rich breakfast sauces. In terms of a flavor profile, crab is an ideal brunch meat because it has the ability to take a delicious but standard brunch dish – eggs benedict – to a whole new level, thanks to the amazing combination of the meat with the hollandaise sauce.”
“The appeal of crab is that it’s such a versatile meat,” comments Thisakya. “It goes as well with simple flavours (like eggs and avocado), as it does with spice. Apart from its easy-to-use quality, it’s a clean, light meat, which is perfect in our humid temperatures. You don’t feel too stuffed, even if you let yourself indulge!”
But you won’t find crab on just your eggs benny. “Recently, we’ve been experimenting with crab in mac and cheese,” says Thiskaya. It’s healthier than the standard choice of bacon (regardless of whether it’s chicken or pork), and provides a great alternative to pescatarians, of which Colombo has many i.e. those who cut all meat out of their diet, except for seafood. “It’s comfort food with a twist—rich and familiar with an interesting mix of flavours.” Essentially, easy to eat by the clawful, and we’re not complaining!
Always going out for brunch can get pricey. If you’re looking to have a brunch shindig at home and still want your regular crab benny or mac and cheese, use these tips from the pros to get the most fresh, affordable produce.
“Crab is certainly more expensive than fish or prawns, but it’s also less expensive than lobster,” informs Thisakya. So, it’s a great treat to offer your brunch companions, without going into the caviar range. Another way to cut out the high prices at supermarkets or other retail outlets is by going to the fish market yourself. It’s definitely a pre-dawn start (urgh) but you’ll have the best choice of sellers and prices in the market (major plus!) “Visiting the market in the early mornings definitely opens you up to some fantastic deals,” shares Shana. Develop a (strictly fishy) relationship with the seller, and you could soon see your prices dropping. Who doesn’t appreciate a good, old fashioned deal!
Typically, crabs available in Sri Lanka fall into two main categories: lagoon and sea crabs. While lagoon crabs tend to be larger specimens, they’re also much more expensive. Sea crabs are smaller, but tend to be more affordable if you like these crustaceans on the reg. Another difference? Lagoon crabs must be kept alive until immediately before you decide to cook them…which means you need to transport the live specimens from the market to your home. Leaning more towards sea crabs? Thought so! Just remember that, dead or alive, the crabs should be kept on ice until you’re ready to prep them.
Regardless of which crabs you pick, make sure to buy them with their shells, as recommended by both Thisakya and Shana. The presence of the shell guarantees the crab meat is fresh and has not been compromised or mixed, so you’re much more confident in what you’re buying.
The Perfect Pair
As with every good love story, Colombo’s romance with crabs on brunch menus has much to do with its pairings. Like a steak may not go great with rice or a light white wine, brunch crabs also have their specific partners.
Let’s talk eggs and carbs. “I love blending western and eastern dishes together to create interesting mixes. For example, I pair my poached eggs [the basis of any good eggs benedict] and crab on string hoppers or pol roti, because both add so much flavor and texture when compared to the standard bun!” laughs Thiskaya. “It’s adventurous, tastes great and is uniquely Sri Lankan.”
In addition, a stellar brunch is as successful as its drinks. As good as coffee sounds (and as delicious as a good cappuccino can be on its own), it may not be the most ideal partner for your crabby morning. “Fresh lime juice always hits the spot!” recommends Shana. “At Kumbuk, we also serve a Ceylon Punch made with a thambili base, mixed with narang and lime juices, a pinch of sea salt and a dollop of kithul pani, which is a great, organic way to add some sweetness to your meal. It’s a cooling drink after the spicy richness of most brunch dishes and so quenching!”
“Thambili and narang are definitely my favourites,” agrees Thisakya. “The juices are perfect complements, balancing out flavours and containing no processed ingredients.”
A Love Story For The Ages
Aside from its flavor, the quality of the produce and its versatility, there’s an additional compelling reason crabs have climbed to the top of the brunch food chain—it’s much easier to eat a heaping of crabs on eggs, than it is to dig out flesh from an inscrutable mess of shells and cartilage. Unlike sitting down to a full-blown Sri Lankan crab feed, which is no doubt delicious but requires a battalion of claw crackers, bibs and napkins for leaky noses, piles of already-shelled, delicately cooked crab for brunch just seems so convenient! Sure, it doesn’t have the panache or sense of fulfillment that comes from a finally-cracked claw, but crab on poached eggs also doesn’t ruin a fresh mani, smear lipstick all over your chin or threaten to splash over your linen summer dress. You, literally, don’t have to get your hands dirty or work for it, and given our already endless stress lists (rapidly vanishing finances, no Friday night date, a resurgence of adult acne), we’ll take the easy way out just this once!
Feeling a crab hangover? Don’t feel bad about taking diversions in your brunch exploration! Put away the claws for a while, and explore other, fun seafood substitutes.
Modha: “It’s light, easy to source and simple to incorporate into brunch menus,” recommends Thisakya. “Personally, I love a well-cooked modha fillet. To retain the delicate flavor of the fish, I drizzle it with lime, sprinkle a little bit of dried red chillie (which adds a nice spice kick for our Sri Lankan palettes!) and then put it into the oven to bake. I think baking is most effective because it cuts out all the oil and grease that comes from frying. And because you’re using such simple condiments, the dish really brings out the flavor of the fish.”
Modha fun fact: It cooks extremely quickly, so you need to keep an eye on the oven. To avoid burning the fish, make sure to check in every couple of minutes.
– Pink flesh = You’ve still got time to start another episode of Jane The Virgin.
-Half pink/half white = Hover. Time’s almost up!
-White flesh = Done. Done. Done. Channel Wonder Woman and get that fish out of its current situ.
– Charred flesh = Uh oh. That’s fishy business. Take it out, and scrape off the burnt bits. There might still be something to salvage.
Isso: “I think prawns are really fun ingredients to work with!” exclaims Shana. “At Café Kumbuk, we cook them in Panko crumbs and coat them with a sprinkling of desiccated coconut. Then, we add a dash of Sriracha mayo, place the prawns on an open tortilla, and pair the combo with a cool, fresh slaw. The salad elevates the flavor of the prawns and acts as a healthy counterpart to the fried crust. It’s filling, tasty, and you don’t feel like you need to roll out of brunch!”
Isso fun fact: The bigger the better. “With prawns, size is a key indicator of taste,” Shana describes. “I prefer working with king prawns, because I love the consistency and the richness that comes with them.”
Seer: Part of the mackerel family and a hallmark of the Lankan food scene, seer works wonders at brunch time. “I cook it with minimal spice to retain some of the fish’s natural tang, and then use the fish mix as topping on hoppers or waffles, or as a filling in a breakfast wrap,” recommends Thisakya. “It pairs well in equal measure with eggs or veggies, and also makes the most delicious toasted sandwich!”
Seer fun fact: No bones, no problem. Seer lacks the intricate bone network of many other Lankan fish – looking at you, paraw – making it super easy to clean, cook and eat. Easy brunch, happy you!
This article was originally published as ‘Claws: A Deliciously Crabby Tale’ in the July 2017 issue of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. For more lifestyle advice, grab a copy of our latest magazine.
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