My Ammamma used to say that you were already aged two on your first birthday, that wearing a bra really showed a lack of decorum, and that Jaffna’s famous crab curry should be cooked like meat. Look, we didn’t agree about everything, but on crab, or nandu, and I know everyone says this about their own granny, there just isn’t a greater authority. And of Sri Lanka’s hundreds of lovely curry recipes, Jaffna crab curry is widely regarded as our best. 

Luckily for you, this method is hers, no additions or subtractions, a century old, straight out of Karaveddy, and just as Ammamma said, cooked in a very similar way to a red beef or mutton curry. The key to Jaffna crab curry is a mix of sweet, salty, delicate crabmeat, spicy, smoky roasted curry liquid with plenty of coconut milk, curry leaves, fried onions and a little ginger, and then in the final seconds of cooking, a generous spice explosion of eraichithool or ‘meat powder’ spice mix, heavy on fennel, cardamom and nutmeg, making a layered flavour bomb. Unlike many Jaffna seafood recipes, the women in my family skip tamarind for crab and use fresh lime juice instead, which makes everything brighter and lighter. Traditionally, you stir through a light handful of bitter leaves of murungai, or moringa, which are wildly nutritious and slightly peppery. You can skip them altogether or if you can’t get them, young mustard greens or rocket are a good substitute and also look very pretty.

I’m personally squeamish about cooking crab, so this is a beginner’s guide – and I want to reassure you that if you want to brave it, it is actually very easy to make. It is a bit messy to eat, because you need to prise, crack and suck white flesh from crab’s hard shell, but it turns out to be messy fun and I promise the rewards are worth it. Get the freshest, best crab you can, don’t touch it too much as it cooks, and get ready for possibly the best recipe in the book, and the whole island. 

Serves 4

  • 1 large crab (approx. 1kg)

    TST-Rambutan Book Cover Rambutan: Recipes From Sri Lanka Cynthia Shanmugalingam
  • 1 tbsp coconut or vegetable oil

  • 1 red onion, peeled and finely sliced

  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely sliced

  • 3cm fresh root ginger, peeled and finely sliced

  • 20 fresh curry leaves

  • 1 tsp salt, or to taste

  • 1½ tbsp SL curry powder

  • Optional: 70g rocket leaves or mustard greens

  • 100ml coconut milk

  • 1 heaped tsp meat powder

  • ½ lime 

1. If you get a live crab, put it in the freezer for 1 hour until it stops moving completely. Then, with your fingers, lift and twist off the triangular flap under the crab and throw it away. With your fingers, lift and remove the head of the crab, which you should keep for presentation. Discard any grey juice but keep the yellow liquid as it is full of flavour. Cut the crab in half like you were slicing through the spine of an open book (and if it’s a big crab, into quarters too). Then pull off the claws and the legs. Crack the claws by tapping them with the back of a big knife to let the curry seep into the crab while cooking. Wash the crab pieces and set aside. 

2. Heat the oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Fry the onion for 3–4 minutes, until soft. Add the garlic and ginger, and after about 1 minute when the garlic is starting to get fragrant, add the curry leaves, and cook for 30 seconds–1 minute, so the curry leaves are bright green. Add the salt, SL curry powder and the crab. Sauté for 3–4 minutes to give the crab a nice colour and fragrance. Pour over just enough water so the crab is about half submerged in liquid. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn the heat to a simmer and cook for 15–20 minutes. When it’s ready, the crab should be pink and if you prise any flesh, it should not be slimy or raw. 

3. Gently stir in the rocket leaves or mustard greens, if using, and coconut milk, and cook through for 3–5 minutes. Switch off the heat and stir through a generous teaspoon of meat powder. Dish up immediately onto a big sharing platter. Seconds before eating, finish with a squeeze of lime. 

Meat powder

This will keep in the fridge in a jar for two to three months.

• 4 whole cardamom pods

• 2 tsp fennel seeds

• 4 cloves

• 2.5cm piece of cinnamon stick

• ¼ nutmeg, grated

Crush the cardamom pods a bit with your fingers. Put a small pan over medium-low heat, and add the cardamom, fennel seeds and cloves, and roast for 1–2 minutes. Remove from the heat, tip into a spice grinder or mini food processor along with the nutmeg and cinnamon, and blitz until fine. 

Sri Lankan (SL) curry powder

This takes ten minutes and will keep in the fridge in a jar for three months, but feel free to scale the quantities up or down depending on your needs.

• 30g coriander seeds

• 15g cumin seeds

• 15g fennel seeds

• 15g black peppercorns

• 2 tbsp coconut or vegetable oil

• 8–10 fresh curry leaves

• 70g dried Kashmiri or medium hot red chillies

• ¼ tsp ground turmeric

Make sure the windows are open and the ventilation is on, because roasting the chillies will kick up an intense smell which carries through the house. In a dry pan over a lowmedium heat, roast the coriander, cumin, fennel and black peppercorns for 1–2 minutes, stirring regularly, until they begin to be really fragrant, then pour them into a bowl. Add the oil to the pan, and cook the curry leaves and dried chillies for 2–3 minutes, stirring often. Remove from the heat and when cool, blitz in a spice grinder or mini food processor until fine – you can blitz it in batches if you need to. Stir in the turmeric, and put the whole lot in a jam jar.

Excerpted from Rambutan: Recipes from Sri Lanka by Cynthia Shanmugalingam. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA.

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