Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hometown Crab - Caranguejo-Uçá

For thousands of local residents Thursday night in Fortaleza, Ceará, Flavors of Brazil's hometown, means only one thing - crab. On Thursday nights, beachside and downtown bars restaurants alike serve up thousands of crabs to hungry diners. On Tuesday almost no one orders crab, nor on Wednesday or Saturday, but on Thursday the first question a waiter will ask you is likely to be "How many?" rather than "What would you like?". You give him a number and off he goes. He sets the table with small wooden chopping boards and wooden hammers, lots of paper napkins, a plastic bowl for empty shells and hot sauce. Then he brings the feast - small crabs steamed/cooked in a rich broth of coconut milk seasoned with onion, tomatoes and cilantro. A crab goes on the chopping board, you rip the legs off, use the hammer to open them, and the feast begins. And to accompany the crabs? Plenty of icy cold beer, or soft drinks. That's all.

Late last year, when we introduced some friends visiting from Canada to the Thursday night crab ritual, they exclaimed in shock when the bowl of crabs arrived at the table - "Yech! Their legs are hairy!!" And true it was. But once we explained that the hair doesn't come off and that in fact if you dip one of the legs into the delicious broth the hair helps to bring the broth to your mouth they began to relax and to enjoy the meal. But it was a definite culture-shock moment, that first sight of the hirsute crustaceans.
Mangrove swamp

The overwhelming majority of crabs served on these Thursday night blowouts is a species called (in Portuguese) caranguejo-uçá. Caranguejo is the Portuguese word for crab - any crab - and  uçá is a Portuguese adaptation of the species' taxonomic name (Ucides cordatus). Uçá crabs are small, about the same size as an adult human hand. The species is one of two known as mangrove crabs, as their unique habitat are muddy mangrove swamps. The animals live on and in the mud, burrowing in when the tide is high and scuttling about when the tide is low. They are very important to the ecology of mangrove swamps, which are plentiful along the northeast and north coasts of Brazil.

crabs on a string
Most of the supply of crabs for Fortaleza's restaurants and bars comes from the area around delta of the Parnaíba river, about 250 kms. away, in the neighboring state of Piauí. In the city of Parnaíba, located near the mouth of the river and within close distance to miles of coastal mangrove swamps, the harvest and merchandising of crabs are the prime local economic activity. Crabs are commonly sold by the string - each string containing four crabs. Each week during crabbing season about 65,000 strings of crabs are sold in Parnaíba. A crab fisher received 25 centavos (R$0.25) for a string, a price which by the time it reaches a restaurant or bar in Fortaleza sells for R$10. In most beach bars and casual restaurants in Fortaleza, each crab sells for about R$4. Ask a crab fisher how easy it is to catch crabs in their muddy habitat and whether he thinks he's being fairly compensated - the answer is like to be a firm NO. And he'd have a point. The retail price in Fortaleza, which is still only about USD$2 per crab, is 60 times what the fisher receives.

For tourists coming to our city it's essential to try the Thursday night crab feast at least once - it's an important part of local gastronomy. Leaving Fortaleza without eating Caranguejo-Uçá is as heinous a gastronomic crime as leaving New Orleans without eating a Po' Boy sandwich, Naples without sampling pizza in the land of its birth or Vancouver not having indulged in wild Pacific sockeye salmon. Don't do it!


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