In India, fish markets are an assault on the senses. Brightly dressed fisherwomen, baskets laden with all sorts of fins and shells popping out. Cats—lots and lots of them, between your feet, under tables, curled dangerously close to fish chopping boards. It's all very vibrant and chaotic, in a good way. At one end of the market is the crab monger. In bucket-shaped cane baskets, you will see live crabs, trying their best to escape the gaze of hungry customers. The fisherwomen declaw the crabs on the spot once the bargaining is done, and then it's off to the kitchen.
Whole crab is one of the most time-consuming foods to eat. It's also one of the most rewarding, with its pockets of sweet, tender meat. This crab masala combines a homestyle spiced tomato-based masala sauce with whole Dungeness or Jonah crabs. I've developed it from a bit of this and that and it's become quite a favorite.
If you like heat, this is a wonderful medley of hot and fragrant, with the fried and ground spices giving the dish a robust base along with onions, garlic, and ginger (you can reduce or remove the chili if your pain threshold is low).
The sauce follows some basic masala procedures: I toast whole spices and aromatics in oil in a saucepan to improve their aroma and add complexity before grinding them all together and simmering them with a tomato-based sauce. The crab gets added to the sauce and steamed under a lid until just cooked through. I finish it with freshly chopped cilantro leaves.
Once you've mastered this sauce, you'll be able to use it for any number of seafood inspired masala dishes. Try it with shrimp or chunks of tender white fish, for instance.
The dish itself is simple to make. The hard part is keeping your hands clean as you eat it. I recommend plenty of napkins.