The mud crab is one of Queensland’s most famous delicacies, currently (2023) selling at the Sydney fish market for more than $100 each for a 900g-1kg crab. But the first Europeans to make the “muddy” part of their diet were not gourmets but convicts. After the Moreton Bay penal settlement was founded in 1824, the felons supplemented their prison rations with whatever they could catch – and mud crabs were numerous in the mangroves along the shoreline.
The crabs, which had long been eaten by Australia’s Indigenous people, can grow to enormous sizes, measuring up to 300mm across the shell and weighing up to 3.5kg. They live in sheltered estuaries, mud flats, mangrove forests and the tidal reaches of some rivers and can be found right around the north coast of Australia from the Exmouth Gulf in Western Australia down into New South Wales.
In the 1890s a small-scale commercial fishery began in Queensland and some measures were taken to prevent over-fishing. Minimum weights were specified for male and female crabs and, in 1913, this was changed to a minimum size limitation of 5 inches (125mm) across the carapace. The taking of female mud crabs was then prohibited. Further regulation followed and, in 1984, commercial crab fishers required a licence while bag limits were introduced for the recreational fishery. Other states and the Northern Territory also have regulations governing size and catch limits for the crabs.
Mud crabs have long been highly prized by diners. Crab suppers were common in hotels and oyster saloons in the first decades of the 20th century and a newspaper report in 1932 tells of 12 cooked mud crabs being sent from Baxter’s Oyster Saloon in Sandgate, Brisbane, to Geelong in Victoria. The crabs were to form part of a banquet given by the manager of the Ford Motor Company. Visiting Australia in 1964, Andre Simon, founder of London’s Food, and Wine Society, was particularly impressed by Brisbane mud crabs, South Australian yabbies and Australian fish.
Today, mud crab is often found on the menu at Australia’s Asian restaurants, complemented by flavours including chilli, ginger and curry spices. One Melbourne Sri Lankan restaurant offers “Mud Crab Wednesdays” when, for $95, diners can choose between Chilli Garlic Crab, Pepper Crab, Curry Crab and Chilli Butter Crab.
If you want to enjoy mud crab at home, you need to be intrepid. It’s recommended you buy them alive with their giant claws securely trussed, then put them to ‘sleep’ in the freezer for an hour or so. They can be boiled, steamed, grilled or roasted, with perhaps the most famous recipe being that for Singapore Chilli Crab.
In 2023, the Western Australian Department of Primary Industry was backing research into mud crabs in the Kimberley region, with the prospect of creating an Indigenous-owned fishery to supply restaurants in Perth.