Emerita: Mole Crab Munchy Crunchies
Mole crabs are probably the most common ugly food there is, though most people don’t know they’re edible.
Fishermen view the mole crab as great bait for such fish as pompano, red drum and kingfish. Sea birds find them a tasty morsel. Rakes are sold to specifically dig them out of the swash zone where they hide in the sand snagging little bits of food floating by. Not too many folks, though, also eat the bait. The main reason is they are small, but, big flavors can come in small packages (see my article on coquina.)
Mole crabs, also called the Atlantic Sand Crab, are certainly among the smallest of crabs. They are oval, usually some shade of beige, darker on top, lighter on bottom, and have five pairs of legs but no pincers. The females grow to about an inch long and the males half that size. On the east coast of the Americas lives the Emerita talpoida (above) and the on the west coast E. analoga. Emerita is latin for retired female professor. Talpoida is from the Latin root “talpus” and classical Latin word “talpa “ which came from the longer Greek word of tiflopodikas. It means “mole” and very apt because these little crustaceans are quick diggers. They dig into the sand butt first and face the incoming waves. Brave little beasts but they don’t want to be washed higher up the beach. When the wave recedes they pop up slightly to catch food in the outflow. Analoga means similar but slightly different. There are several species of Emerita and to my knowledge all edible.
Among the more interesting features of the mole crab is that some of them are bioluminescent when handled at night. Also, they eat bits of Portuguese Man of War tentacles. They wrap the loose tentacle around a leg like yarn and nibble away. While I have read of no warning it might not be wise to eat mole crab when there has been large seasonal numbers of those stinging jelly fish around. Incidentally, the mole crab is fastidious. It uses antenna to clean itself.
So, how do you eat them? Many ways but raw is not one of them. While most sea food is safe they can harbor parasites. Best to avoid any complications by cooking them. They are prepared three or four different ways.
One is to simply drop them into hot, deep oil and fry. When they float they are done and just pop them in, shell and all (I eat shrimp shells and find them delicious.) A second way is to pull off their small tail, which takes some of their digestive system with it, squeeze them to get more digestion out, wash them, and then fry them as is or in a batter. Another way is to cover them whole (or cleaned) with fresh water and bring to a boil and boil for about 20 minutes. Then put them and the broth in a large container and mash the mole crabs with a potato masher or the like. Then filter that liquid and use as a basis for various soups. (One similarly cooks coquina — minus the mashing — and just uses the broth.) When you cook mole crabs they turn red just like crabs and lobsters do and you will detect the definite aroma of seafood.
In southeast Asia they are deep fried then dipped in honey. In Brazil, where they are called Tatui (Emerita brasiliensis) there are many ways to prepare them. The simplest is to just fry them whole in a little butter. Another way is to boil them until red and then toss them in a pan with oil, salt and pepper. After stirring to coat flour is added to coat and cook. Then they are arranged on the plate in a whole with the seasoned flour on top. Natives also eat the roe raw off the large female3s.
The easiest time to dig them up in just before low tide or just after the low tide has turned and is coming in. They are found usually only on sandy beaches where the waves break. If you train your eye you will learn to see two little antenna popping up as the mole crabs senses the pressure of an incoming wave, and then disappearing as the wave recedes. You will also find them in the same spot as coquina who also use the wave action for food.
MOLE CRAB CHOWDER
1 to 2 pounds of live mole crabs
2 cups of water
2 to 3 red onions, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
½ teaspoon parsley, minced
2 to 4 more cups of water
1 cup noodles, rice, or potatoes, not cooked
flour or toasted wheat flour
Steam the crabs in a covered pan with 2 cups of water until they are tender, about 20 minutes. Remove from the stove and, with the crabs still in the broth, mash thoroughly with a potato masher. Strain through cheesecloth, retaining the broth and discarding the crabs. Next, fry the onions to a golden color in the oil and butter, and mix with the broth in a saucepan. Add the parsley and two cups of broth. Heat the broth and add either the noodles, rice, or potatoes. Remember to add sufficient water to cook the quantity of ingredient you add. The broth and chowder may also be thickened.