South Indian Crab Curry with a Twist

featured in Oprah Magazine

south indian crab curry on oprah magazine december 2011 – on right hand side

I was asked to contribute to the Summer Memories Food Section in the December issue of Oprah Magazine South Africa, featuring 6 food personalities. (I’m a food personality?!) I chose a South Indian Crab Curry, that despite the heat and complex spiciness, is one I always enjoy with my family during the summer December holidays, each year without fail.

with neighbourhood kids, me toothless far right, aged around 8

This is the original of the contribution I made, describing the dish and the memories associated with Crab Curry (magazine copy was edited, naturally):

Fond memories of Crab Curry

“What would you like for supper?”

My mother still asks me this question, usually over the phone these days, whenever we go home to Pietermaritzburg to visit my folks. I always ask for mutton biryani, sheep trotters with red beans and crab curry. All these represent the dishes of home-coming, time spent with my grandparents when they were alive, laughter and sharing.

Crab curry, is a special favorite in our family and until two years ago, or so I hadn’t attempted one of my own. It’s nearly impossible to locate crab in Cape Town, so by way of very clever freezing and sealing, we bring a supply down from Durban when we fly down to visit my parents, or when they visit they “smuggle” these beauties, usually the pink shelled crabs, with them.

The first thing you must know about eating crab curry (if you haven’t) is that you must surround yourself with people you love, and more importantly, who love you unconditionally. Things are bound to get messy and using your hands is a must. This is not for the fainthearted.

I recall laughing so hard, as my brother tried to wipe his nose with a tissue (Durban style curries take no prisoners) and at the same time, mop up the juices from the curry that ran down to his elbow. Washed down with cola flavoured Crerars (similar to Bashews and the cool drink choice of my childhood), we ate a little, chatted and laughed, took a break and before long the large bowl in the centre of the table filled up with the crab shells. Soon we were demanding seconds and my mother fetched a steaming bowl with more crab curry, surveying the damage on the table with twinkling eyes (and probably thankful that she didn’t use any of her fine tablecloths).

South Indian Crab Curry with a Twist

My recipe for South Indian Crab curry is a version I’ve honed, based on my mother’s recipe and Rick Stein’s Coconut Chilli Crab in his sublime book Far Eastern Odyssey. I prefer the version with coconut milk, as it gives the dish a rounded flavour– it’s a wonderful balance with the heat of the masala and chillis, the tang of tomato and tamarind, the sweetness of the crab meat and the citrusy freshness of the lime.  Though honestly, as good as I think mine is, I’m surprised afresh each December when I sit with my family and enjoy my mother’s spicy crab curry. Nothing compares.


Photo credit: Photographer: Adel Ferreira.
Stylist: Illanique van Aswegen.
December issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, South Africa – Summer Memories (by Deidre Donnelly).


1.4 kg crab pieces (frozen is fine, they’re almost impossible to find fresh)

3 T sunflower oil

1 t fenugreek seeds

2 cinnamon sticks

150 g onions, sliced finely

2 green chillis, slit lengthwise

8 medium cloves garlic, sliced into eighths

2 t ginger & garlic paste

½ t turmeric

4 t medium-hot masala/curry powder

2 x 410 g chopped fresh or canned tomato, blended till smooth

2 t palm or brown sugar

125 ml water

3 T tamarind, soaked in 60ml hot water or 2 T tamarind paste

200 ml coconut milk (optional)

12 curry leaves

Salt, to taste

Juice ½ a small lime

Fresh coriander to serve.


I always use crab pieces, so there is no preparation involved, apart from leaving them in the fridge, covered overnight or for half a day, to thaw.
Heat a wide, heavy based pot on medium-high and add the oil. Once hot, add the fenugreek seeds and cinnamon and fry for a few seconds.
Add the onions and fry till translucent. Turn the heat down if they start to brown.
Add the green chillis and half the curry leaves and stir.
Add the turmeric and masala and stir briskly, as you don’t want the spices to burn. Fry for 5-10 seconds, stirring and ensure heat is low.
Add the garlic slivers and ginger and garlic paste, and stir.
Add the tomatoes and sugar, and turn up the heat to medium-high. The mixture will come to the boil.
After 1-2 minutes, turn down the heat to medium, add the tamarind water (remove the stones), remaining curry leaves and water.
Mix well and cook for a further 5-6 minutes.
Add the coconut milk, if using and stir.
Add salt, to taste.
Add the crab, bring pot to the boil and cook for 10 minutes, turning pieces over gently, so they all cook evenly.
Turn down heat, add lime juice and adjust seasoning.
Garnish with fresh coriander and serve with, lime wedges, basmati rice and plenty of paper serviettes. (Cloth napkins stain and never wash out- a lesson I’ve learned the hard way)
the best result is achieved if you prepare this curry in advance, perferably the night before.