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Jamaican Food Stories: Hunting land crabs in Jamaica

Boiling Crabs / courtesy of MotionFrames Inc.

Hunting land crabs is another ritualistic pastime we enjoy in Jamaica. Many persons enjoy these tasty crustaceans while others abhor the crab-eating practice. Never being one to be deterred from delicious food by squeamishness or what others had to say, I fully endorse crab hunting. They will not be allowed to put a damper on the exploits of this adventurous foodie. I have been an eager participant if not now, elder statesman in the sport of hunting crabs. I enjoy hunting the crabs almost as much as eating those tasty crustaceans.

I came to the adventures of crab hunting much later than I would have liked. I did not catch my first crab until the age of twenty-two having not being fortunate to spend my formative years in the countryside. Happily, my love for delicious crab meat was kindled much earlier. I remember how my friends and I would save our lunch money to buy crabs from a vendor near our school. Despite the numerous warnings from my mother not to do so. She would say “ Don’t buy crab a road. Look how them vendors have them hanging out the pot, those can’t be properly boiled. Land crabs need to be well boiled”. To ease my conscience for disobeying my mother’s warning. I chose to buy from the vendor whose stall looked the cleanest and made sure the boiling crabs were under the bubbling water. I found a vendor I liked and bought crabs from her and only her year after year. I am glad to report that I did not once get sick from eating crabs. I don’t know how I would have explained that to my mother.

We would get crabs at home when relatives would bring a few of them from the country. It was never enough when shared among the family for me to get a good eat. I was always left wanting more. Thank goodness I have more than made up for that in my adult life. Crab season is throughout the month of May. During this month we would usually get a lot of rain. Rain is necessary for a successful crab season. When the rain falls, the crab holes are flooded, so the crabs tend to surface. If the sun is hot the next day, it will heat the water in the hole making it unbearable for the crabs. They would then be left exposed on land. We hunt the crabs at night when they are most active. A rainy May month usually results in a good crab season.

It is important to note for those serious hunters who go deep into the bush; Crab season coincides with the crocodile breeding season when crocodiles are most protective therefore most aggressive. I was given that bit of information years ago by someone with extensive knowledge of crocodile habits in Jamaica. He thought us foolhardy for hunting in the deep bush at those times. Fortunately, I am yet to come across a crocodile on a hunt.

Land Crab / via

My indoctrination into crab hunting was by some of my coworkers. These guys were serious crab hunters. No less than a full bag after a hunt would make them happy. They had bragging rights and larger than life stories to uphold.They furnished me with a list of items I would need when going to hunt crabs. My gear included a flashlight or lantern, work gloves, water boots, raincoat, machete and long used rice or sugar bags ( fine bag) to put the crabs caught. It is important to understand that loads of crabs are caught each year by guys in flip flops with nothing but a five-gallon bucket. It was my coworker’s hunt, so it was their rules, and I was happy just to be invited along. My coworkers even made some huge bamboo torches that lit a large circumference around them in the bush. They were serious and always brought home the crabs to back that talk up.

My first night out I was given instructions on how to hold the crab, then I was off. Crabs were abundant that night so I quickly learned how to pick them up. After awhile I got a bit careless and was reminded that crabs could pinch you with their claws even through work gloves. I was to be reminded of that fact a few more times before the night was over. I found myself in two situations worth mentioning my first night out. The first one happened in the sugar cane plantation where we were hunting. The cane was so tall, much taller than us and so thick that after walking around catching crabs. We were now ready to leave, but we could not find our way back to the vehicles, some would say we were lost. The sugar cane plantation was a large expanse acres and acres of sugar canes. This was before cell phones were commonplace, so we walked around for about two hours until we finally found our way back to the vehicles.

The other incident happened while we were on the way home. We were riding in the back of a pickup, which is the vehicle of choice for the crab hunter. While on the way home in the wee hours of the morning we were on the lookout for crabs on the road. If you spot a crab, you bang on the truck the driver stops, and you hop out and get it. I was stoked from my recent successes at the crab wars so was quick off the pickup and onto a crab. This fellow turned out to be the biggest crab I had ever seen. I was overjoyed but had a problem. The crab had his back against a rock, with his two giant claws outstretched. He seemed as if he was standing upright! I was in a quandary.

They had taught me to catch the crabs by holding them across the lower back so that the claws could not reach you. This humongous crab had his back to a large rock. I had left my machete in the truck which I could have used to turn him around. I hesitated considering what to do. Meanwhile, another group of hunters drove up. Noticing my hesitation a member of their party pounced. He grabbed the crab holding on to its outstretched claws, with a claw in each hand a smirk on his face he made his escape with the prizewinning crab in tow. That was an embarrassingly hard lesson, but I have since used his technique to bag many a big crab. I quickly got over the loss after getting back in the truck and seeing the full bag of crabs on my first time out.

Curry Crab in Cracked Shells / via

A few days later came my favorite part of the proceedings as I had emptied the crabs into a 55 gallon drum and fed them for a few days on mangoes and the leaves from the pepper plant to purge them. Boiled crabs and bananas are delicious. I advise using a long handle brush to clean each live crab while holding it under running water. Then drop it in a pot of boiling water seasoned with a lot of salt and scotch bonnet pepper, pimento, thyme lots of escallion and garlic. Ensure that the crab does not go in on its back when placing them into the pot. Allow enough space so they can be covered with the boiling water. Then add green bananas if you like. I usually give land crabs a good boil as per my mother’s instructions as they are not discriminate eaters.

If you are going to be picking the crab from the shell for another dish, a light boil will make the meat easier to remove. You can complete the cooking process while making that recipe. Curried crabs in their cracked shells are also good and is a specialty of the Jamaican Indian community. Picked crabs baked in their cleaned back shell is also appetizing. If you can pick crabs or know someone who can you might be able to do some curry crab in coconut or crab tamale. That is the height of crustacean goodness.

I have made it a practice to always share my bounty of crabs with family and friends. Remembering how difficult it was to get crabs when I was younger. I still to this day look forward to crab hunting and have passed the skills along to the younger generation. I don’t go into the thick bush anymore. Maybe I am not as hardcore as before. I also find that I am not above buying a bag of crabs off some youngsters if I am driving by and they are selling. Land Crab hunting is indeed another fun pastime we still happily practice in Jamaica.

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