Indian Crab Curry | How to Kill, Clean and Cook Live Crabs

Aiiiieeeeee!! Aiyyoooooo!

I dropped my dolly on her head and rushed toward the direction of the screams.  As I rounded the corner into the kitchen, I was met with the most extraordinary sight. My two not-a-hair-out-of-place grandmothers were in quite a flap. Small Granny was muttering under her breath, utterly displeased as she examined the two delicate rivulets of blood meandering down her doughy, white forearms. Big Granny was rushing around the smoky kitchen, saucepan in one hand, rolling pin in the other, keenly focused on apprehending the combative perpetrators.

A small wicker basket lay overturned on the slate kitchen floor. Leaving behind their more well-behaved compatriots, two, large, grey crabs were fiercely making their way across the kitchen floor, running for their lives. When the basket was opened, they must have seen the pot of boiling water on the stove and knew what lay in store for them. One must commend them for their desire to live, even if they deludedly sought a new life under the refrigerator.

Clattering over the cold stone floor, claws snapping menacingly, the crustaceans artfully sidestepped and dodged anyone who confronted them.  The young kitchen maid ran to fetch the broom and then proceeded with great gusto to alternately sweep, shriek and smack at the crabs, cleanly missing them at every go.

The Dog, not wanting to be left out of the action, took it on herself to corner one of the arthropods. Feigning courage, she barked furiously and leaped and pranced around the rogue crab, putting on quite a show for the absconder. However with one quick nip of the crab's deadly claws, doggy was soon put out of action. Whimpering she retreated to a corner of the kitchen to nurse her wounds. At the opposite corner, Small Granny wiping her brow had also conceded defeat. The animated maid continued to sweep, shriek, smack and miss.  If there was anyone who deserved a medal for total ineffectiveness delivered with superb theatrical effect, it was she. So it was all left up to Big Granny now to corral the intruders with her saucepans.

The only who maintained any grace under fire was The Cat, who with one long leap escaped to the top of the meat safe. From her perch she watched the commotion unfold below her, with a slight air of boredom but a definite look of disapproval. 

I stood transfixed at the kitchen door, watching the spectacle with the emotion of any normal eight year old in this situation- a bit of horror and a lot of glee. Eventually Big Granny triumphed. Hurrah! She captured the escape artists with her saucepans and with a quick crack of her rolling pin, 'subdued' them. 

They soon met their curried fate. 

An hour later, over lunch, I regaled my miniature cousins with stories of the morning's antics in the kitchen, complete with sound effects and peppered with a good deal of embellishments. Whoever knew that meal preparation was such fun. I made a mental note to visit the kitchen more often.

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South Indian Crab Curry

My recipe for this Indian Crab Curry is a South Indian recipe that uses grated coconut for the crab masala and makes a south Indian coastal style crab curry typical to Kerala and Mangalore

This crab masala recipe is a 'varutharacha' masala which  means roasted and ground masala. The grated coconut and all the spices and ingredients are first roasted and then ground together into a masala paste before cooking it with the crabs.

There isn't a whole lot of gravy in this crab curry recipe but the gravy is so packed with flavor that a little over rice goes a long way. In Mangalore, this crab curry preparation would be called "Crab Sukka/ Kurli Sukka" and in Kerala this would be called "Njandu Curry" or "Nandu Curry" (nandu means crab in Malayalam and kurli means crab in Konkani).

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How to Kill Live Crabs Humanely

For the best crab curry, you need to use fresh crabs. So select live crabs and ask your fisherman to kill them and clean them for you. Come home and cook them immediately.

If you're stuck with the unpleasant task of killing the live crabs yourself, here are a few tips to do the dirty deed as quickly and humanely as possible.

Step 1: Stun the crabs
  • Plunge the live crabs into a tub of saltwater ice slurry (for saltwater crabs) to render them insensible. Use freshwater slurry for freshwater crustaceans. Leave them in the slurry until they stop moving (usually around 30 minutes).
  • Or put them in the freezer for about 1 hour but note that stunning time takes longer.
  • The crabs are sufficiently stunned when they exhibit no resistance to handling and they exhibit no reactions when their shell is tapped.
Step 2: Kill the crab by spiking it
  • Place the crab on its back. Insert a sharp pointy knife into the head of the crab at an 85° angle to destroy the main nerve center.
Watch this 1 minute video by NT Fisheries for a demonstration on how to kill a crab humanely using the stun and spike method.

RSPCA also has helpful guidelines on the most humane way to kill crustaceans.

How to Clean and Cut Crabs

After stunning and spiking the crab to kill it, the next step is to clean it.
  • Place the crab, top up, on a non-skid surface. With one hand on the legs of the crab, grasp the top shell of the crab and pull it off. Discard the top shell.
  • Wash the crab under running water, pulling off the gills and any yellowish membranes and mucus so that only the white meat of the crab remains. The bright orange mass in the crab cavity are crab eggs/crab roe in female crabs, also called crab butter, which can be cooked and eaten.
  • Flip the crab to expose the underside. Remove the tail flap and discard.
  • Using a sharp knife, cut off the crab's head and discard.
  • Next, cut the crab lengthwise into two pieces.
  • And then separate the claws and if desired, cut the crab into smaller pieces.
  • Using the back of a knife, smartly crack the claws to allow the spices/ gravy to soak into the crab flesh when cooking.
For a quick refresher, I like to watch a short video demonstration from Vahchef on how to clean crab. 

RECIPE: South Indian Crab Curry Recipe


☐ 3 crabs or 1/2 kg crabs. Clean and cut the crabs.
☐ 1/2 cup grated coconut
☐ 1 onion, chopped
☐ 2 pods garlic, sliced
☐ 1 inch ginger, sliced
☐ 1/2 teaspoon Chili powder
☐ 1 teaspoon Coriander powder
☐ 1/4 teaspoon Jeera/Cumin powder
☐ 3/4 teaspoon Tamarind paste or 2 marble-sized pieces of tamarind soaked in water
☐ Curry leaves
☐ Oil
☐ Salt

Step by Step Instructions:

Step 1: Roast the coconut

On low heat, heat oil in a wok/ frying pan.  Add coconut and fry for a few minutes to roast the coconut. Remove and set aside.

Step 2: Roast the spices & other ingredients

Add more oil to the vessel, add onions and fry/ roast. Add ginger and garlic pieces and fry/ roast. Then add chili powder, coriander powder, jeera powder and curry leaves. Add the roasted coconut. Mix and roast all ingredients together on low heat. Don't let the ingredients burn.

Step 3: Grind masala

Remove the roasted ingredients and blend/ puree the ingredients in a blender, along with about 1/2 cup of water and tamarind paste.

Step 4: Cook the crabs

Heat oil in a large vessel. Add the crabs, masala, salt. Drizzle with a little more oil. Cover the vessel and and cook for 15-20 minutes. 

The crabs are ready! Dig in. Eating crabs is messy business so get ready to get both hands dirty. Enjoy!


Use frozen crab legs

  • If you don't want to go through the trouble of cleaning and cutting fresh crabs, an easy option is to use frozen crab legs. Frozen King crab legs or Alaskan Snow crab legs are easily available if you live in North America. 
  • Be sure to thaw frozen crab legs before cooking. 
  • Some of them are already cracked and cooked. Cooked crabs legs will already be orange or red in color. If using cooked crabs legs, boil the masala with adequate amount of water for 15 minutes and then add the pre-cooked crabs legs for the last few minutes of cooking to absorb the flavor of the masala.

Use tinned/ packaged lump crab meat

  • Half the fun of eating crabs is trying to get the crab meat out of the shell and sucking up every last bit of delicious juice out of the crab. But if you aren't up for that kind of exercise, then you can use tinned crab meat instead.
  • Check the tin/package to make sure that it is not 'imitation' crab meat.
  • Tinned/ packaged crab meat is usually already cooked, so cook the masala ahead of time and then just toss the cooked crab meat in the masala in the last few minutes of cooking.

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