Catch a crab for lunch

What have we got here?
What?  Catch a crab for lunch?  This sounded quite daunting when I first heard about it because I usually enjoyed my crabs cooked and served at the table.  I may have never given much thought about how crabs are caught but I’m game for a crab-catching experience.  I’m eagerly anticipating this exciting adventure as we head for Kampung Sungai Melayu in Nusajaya, Johor.

As Nusajaya is being developed into a regional city with commercial, industrial, educational, medical and residential sectors as well as international attractions, it is inevitable that the traditional lifestyle of villagers in Kg Sungai Melayu will be affected.

The village is over 120 years old and the villagers are mainly fisherfolk who are occupied with cottage industries that process kupang (mussels), keropok (crackers) and belacan (shrimp paste).  Bird watchers often come here to observe migratory birds because the village lies along the birds’ seasonal flight path.  Despite the modern development that is on-going in Nusajaya, the charm of a rustic village life has been carefully preserved to allow visitors to get an authentic Malay kampung experience.

Cycling Fun                                                     

Our kampung tour starts with a bicycle ride
into the village
But before we can get our hands dirty and catch the crabs, we have to first cycle the final 6km stretch leading into the village!

Cycling is a popular sport in Nusajaya because the roads here are wide.  I find it interesting that this activity is added into the itinerary of activities in our kampung tour.

As our vehicle turns off the Kota Iskandar Expressway, excitement goes up a notch when I see a row of shining bicycles neatly lined up on the roadside and the marshall’s 4WD car waiting for us.  We are given a helmet each and then we choose our bikes.  I can see that some of us are impatient to start off but we have to patiently wait to listen to the safety briefing.

A charming village house in Kampung Sungai Melayu
Then we’re off, riding along the smooth tarred road that borders Malborough College before turning into a laterite road that leads to the edge of an oil palm plantation.  The undulating route proves quite a challenge as bikers of different abilities try to negotiate the twists and turns but it is all good fun as we puff and pant our way along the sun-dappled path.

Once or twice, we have to disembark and push our bikes up the sharper inclines.  A few rest stops later, we suddenly find we have arrived!
The villagers are probably used to visitors and bikers coming to their village but I can see they are still rather tickled to watch us wobble our way to a stop near the marshall’s car in the village square.

We surrender the bicycles and helmets in exchange for chilled bottles of water distributed for our refreshment.  Just as I’m catching my breath, I see our escorts handing out life-jackets near the jetty.  I hurry over to join the group and soon we are putting on the life-jackets and getting them properly secured before we gather at the jetty for our next activity on the river.

Crab Trapping

Boarding the boats from the wooden jetty
The tide is high in the river and water is lapping at the sides of the jetty where the fishing boats are moored.  Looking tanned, the fishermen at the helms of their boats are waiting for us, divided into two or three, to board each boat.

I feel a little apprehensive because I don’t have very good sea legs but everyone else is already on board and I know I can hesitate no longer.  I remind myself that I have come this far to catch crabs for lunch and so, drawing a deep breath for courage, I join my friend, Arlyn, in a boat manned by fisherman Zahir.  While I’m enjoying the scenery and watching the other boats chug off, Arlyn is valiantly trying to chat with Zahir above the roar of the boat’s engine.

We join the other boats on the river cruise and pass lush mangrove forests on both sides of the river.  Mangrove swamps are excellent breeding grounds for fish, shellfish and crustaceans.  I can see the breathing roots of the mangroves above the rising tide while the wind that whips around us, leaves a briny taste.

This is the way to drop a baited crab trap
attached to a flat, into the river
We cruise along quite pleasantly and then the boat slows down as Zahir pilots it close to the river bank and shows us crab traps with baits inside that we have to drop into the water.  It’s a simple cage-like contraption with a plastic float attached which will help indicate its location when we return to retrieve the trap later.

Then after Arlyn makes a big show of dramatically dropping it into the river, we continue with our river cruise.  The others do the same and on our return journey, each boat stops to pick up the traps marked by floats.

As the traps are lifted up, I hear shouts of joy or dismay as some traps have one or more crabs inside and others, none at all.  The loudest wails of disappointment probably came from Arlyn and me when we see our trap empty but the bait gone!  I guess some clever crab must have got away with a free lunch!

Cultural Experience

Piles of fabric that turned out to be sarongs for
guests to wear for lunch!
Arlyn and I share a laugh over our failed crab trapping experience even though we are feeling sad about not having caught a crab.  But as we take a short walk through the village to the house where our lunch will be served, we are assured that there are enough crabs for all of us.

We walk pass villagers going about their daily chores and admire the gaily painted brick houses standing among traditional wooden ones on stilts.  Leafy fronds along the pathway offer some share on this sunny day and it feels good to have worked up an appetite before we enjoy a traditional village meal.

This villager helps me tie the sarong
the traditional way!
Besides the host family, a group of curious villagers are standing in front of the house to welcome us.  Following the Malay tradition, the men shake hands as the women are ushered inside after we remove our shoes.  My eyes are drawn to a stack of fabrics on a low table and then I see someone distributing a piece to each of the visitors.  As we unfold and shake out the fabric, we realise that they are sarongs and laugh in amusement because we are to put on the sarong before we sit down for lunch!

Most of us are familiar with wearing sarongs but I must admit that I have never put on one the traditional way.  I gingerly step into the sarong and pull it around me, quite unsure of how to fasten it when one of the village women comes forward to help me.  With a few deft movements, she has fastened it securely around my waist.  To my surprise, I can move about quite confidently without it threatening to drop off!

Lunch on the floor

A village staple, fish cooked in asam pedas or
tamarind gravy Johor-style
Our host family has laid out our lunch in the front hall on lengths of table cloth across the floor.  The serving dishes are meant for groups of four in a linear arrangement and I find it exciting that we are not going to be sitting at tables but on the floor, the traditional kampung way.  

So I sit down on the floor wearing a sarong, crossing my legs in quite an unladylike manner but feeling quite comfortable.  Before we start eating, a traditional piece of tableware is passed around – the kendi – where water is poured from a teapot to rinse my hands and the water is caught in the receptacle below.  Cutlery is provided with the plates but I’m ready to eat the traditional Malay way – with my hands! 

The traditional way to reach the juicy flesh of fresh crabs
os to crack the shells using a mortar and pestle!
As in any typical Malay meal, steamed rice is offered and we dish out our own portions.  We eat this with the dishes laid out – Johor-style fish assam pedas, kangkong stir-fried in belacan, kampong fried chicken, steamed prawns and the crabs.  

For additional zing, there are two types of dip sauces – sambal belacan from belacan made by the villagers and chopped fiery chili padi in dark sauce.  As I pass the dishes around and share them among the four of us, I’m delighted to experience this traditional communal way of dining together. 

Visitors savour the kampung lunch served the
traditional way, on the floor!
At first, everyone seems quite reluctant to help themselves to the crabs as someone said that it is messy to wrestle with the crabs.  These freshly caught mud crabs are cooked whole and I agree that it will be quite a feat to rip the crab apart but our host brings out a traditional mortar and pestle for us to pound the claws to reach its juicy sweet flesh.  

I didn’t need any persuasion because there is no better way to savour the natural flavours of the crabs but to dig in with both hands.  When sit back after the meal, I feel a strange sense of achievement that I have scraped every nook and cranny of the shells for juicy morsels.  After the satisfying lunch, we surrender our sarongs and say, terima kasih to the host family before walking slowly back to the village square.

Fast Facts

For more info and reservations for your own agro-tour experience, contact Prima Sierra Holidays on Tel: 607 – 521 7088, 012 - 7075195 or visit website:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 31 July 2014

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