”Gomen ne gani” (Sorry crab!)

These were the words of a student as she one-by-one snapped the legs off an orange, Echizen crab. I watched with morbid curiosity as the crustacean was pulled, picked and broken to pieces before every part of it was eaten and only the shell and legs were left, licked clean of course. 

Every year the san nen-seis are taught how to eat the famous Echizen crab and today I got to join in with the fishy commotion. To my surprise the lunch room was not only filled with eager students and some expert crab openers, but also a camera crew who were making some sort of film of the event. Knowing I stand out in a room full of Japanese people, I subtly sat myself next to some friendly girls at the back of the room and tried to avoid the camera crew gaze. It worked; temporarily!

For some of the students it was their first time to eat Echizen crab, which is unusual as Echizen is famous nationwide for it’s delicious crab. I admit to have even visited the eccentric Echizen crab museum, sign posted with one of many giant plastic crabs which cling on to crab restaurants, fishmongers and this museum along the Echizen coastline. At the museum I learnt a little about the fishermen whose lives have been reliant on these orange crustaceans for hundreds of years and can now make a good living off these small but expensive seafood. The crabs are called Snow Crab here, probably due to the fact they are only caught in the winter months. The crabs we were dissecting at school came fresh from the port at Mikuni, and were raw as they could be. A yellow tag was tied to a crab’s leg to testify that it was from Echizen, the most sought-after type of crab in Japan. In fact it is the only type of crab presented to the Imperial Family every year!

These Echizen crabs are sold as that equivalent of £66 each!

So this is how to get in to an Echizen crab:

Step 1. Turn the crab upside down.

Step 2. Pull down it’s underside and scoop out all the red eggs (and there’s a lot of them!)

Step 3. Time to get your muscles in action: take both sets of legs and squeeze them together so they break off the crab’s body. Now you can literally see all of the crab’s innards (a mess of orange, green and white mush to an untrained eye like mine!)

Step 5. Break each leg at one end, then use a smaller leg to push the white crab meat through the outer case. If you’re lucky you will get one mouthful of meat per leg!

As soon as I left the safety of my back-row seat the camera crew were on to me and before I knew it I had a white light shining in my face and three men holding various instruments looking expectantly at me. The presenter was a man dressed in a pink yukata, and had a girl no more than ten as his cute side kick for the show. He asked me in Japanese if had I eaten the crab. I gestured that I hadn’t but found the word ‘Tabetai’ (I want to eat!) which made the presenters very excited! So a crab’s body with its meat piled on it was given to me. Choosing the least disgusting piece I could, I cautiously put it into my mouth. It was different from the usual crab meat I’d eaten from a tin in England, and a world away from the ‘crab’ sticks I love in sushi, and the texture was a lot chewier than I’d expected. But when I could politely answer, I said ‘Oishii desu’, meaning delicious, and everyone cheered! The spotlight turned to someone else. Phew!

So how did it really taste? Well like most delicacies, it was an acquired taste. The crunchy eggs got stuck in my teeth, the white meat was more bitter than I’d had before and the gooey orange and green insides were edible but looked disgusting!

Despite the crab’s reputation, some students couldn’t stomach eating the rather disgusting looking creature, so they wanted me to eat theirs for them. I tried my best but could only stomach a couple more mouthfuls. My colleagues were surprised at me as they adored the stuff and would eat it everyday if they could! Another culinary difference comes to light.

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