Ugavule The hunt for coconut crabs

On a visit to Vanua Levu, Chef Seeto finally gets to cook and sample one of Fiji’s most exotic and rich delicacies of the land — ugavule.

If there is one food that has eluded me in Fiji, it has been the ugavule, the coconut crab. A cross between a hermit crab, mangrove crab and a lobster, the gigantic arthropod is the most bizarre and alien-looking creature that walks our shores.

Native to Vuaqava, an outlier of Kabara in the Lau Group, as well as several islands near Taveuni in the North, the coconut crab gets its name from its main diet of eating coconut.

A cousin-brother of the hermit crab that many resorts use for crab races, the infant ugavule’s life also begins in a tiny sea shell but once the shell of the coconut crab begins to harden and their claws begin developing teeth-like jaws, the crab goes on to grow to more than one metre wide and weighing more than 10 kilograms.

It is one, big and ugly creature that is capable of ripping an entire toilet off the wall (search on Youtube) and climbs like a spider. This is a true monster of the land, but unlucky for the ugavule of Fiji, it has no natural predator, except for humans.

KABARA STYLE

Filming for the new series of Taste of Paradise is nearing completion and as you’ve probably seen on the Fiji TV previews, the show has evolved even more this year thanks to new camera technology and Captain Cook Cruises taking us to the far remote islands of Lau, Yasawa and Vanua Levu.

It was on one of these islands that I finally got to experience ugavule, Kabara style. Vuaqava is an island off Kabara where a cholera outbreak in the early 19th century killed many and forced the inhabitants to move to other islands; leaving the resident coconut crab to thrive in their thousands.

At dawn, the locals tell me that hundreds of the brown/blue coloured crabs walk the land and beach in search of food and a mate. Protected by the descendants of Vuaqava, the crabs are in abundance and I can only imagine how big they must get with an entire island of coconut trees all to themselves.

For just $F50 for a large crab and $F30 for a smaller one, villagers meet the Reef Endeavour on the beach to enjoy fresh coconut crabs boiled in large pots. Once cooked, the tail is broken off and opened up to reveal the digestive liver cooked in the coconut oil.

The mustard coloured tomally is very rich and creamy, and likened to fois gras (goose liver) or chicken liver pate. You just break off a claw, pull the meat and dip it straight into the tail’s buttery goodness. But while its only $50 in Vuaqava, when it finally lands in the West you can bet it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg.

COCONUT CRABS IN NADI

One of my favourite new Chinese restaurant discoveries in Nadi is Pan World Restaurant, directly opposite RB Jetpoint. Beautifully decored and obviously aimed at the growing mainland Chinese visitor, it’s not your typical Fijian-Chinese chop suey eatery.

The chef comes from Guangzhou in China, a sprawling port city northwest of Hong Kong on the Pearl River, and considered the birthplace of dim sum where it has a thriving food scene. But it’s not cheap and you won’t see the $9 sweet and sour pork or chow mein, but if you want a fine dining experience of some of the newest flavours out of China, this is definitely the place to go.

The menu has photographs because it is mostly written in Chinese, but don’t be intimidated by the foreign language, the staff are Fijian and the food pictures look very inviting. It has all my favourites of roast duck, red pork, claypots and stir fry, but the biggest and most pleasant surprise is the availability of fresh coconut crabs — and they’re still alive!

Owner, Rocky, came to the table with a set of scales and weighed the feisty crab in front of me. At 1.6 kg (they are known to grow to over 5kg) and a cost of $F200 per kilogram, my crab feast was about to set me back $320, and that wasn’t including drinks or appetisers! I figured that I had been searching for this delicacy for nearly six years so the chance to finally devour this monster was well worth it on this special occasion.

The flesh is a cross between lobster and crab but the real taste is in the tail. Filled with a buttery tomally (a crustacean’s liver) infused with coconut oil, the tail is what sets it apart from all other crabs. The crab is most popular served in a coconut curry sauce but on this night the chef recommended the rich tomally steamed with egg, Guangzhou style and I have to tell you that when served with rice is one of the richest and delicate dishes I have enjoyed in a long time.

Pan World is not the only restaurant in Nadi where you can find coconut crab. I also saw it on the blackboard special at Sweet Laisa’s just down the road (the old Flaming Wok) near Fiji Gas, on Queens Rd. Now I don’t have to wait another six months to try it again. I just need to save another $300.

* Lance Seeto is the multi-award winning executive chef based on Mana Island, and is Fiji Airways’ Culinary Ambassador and host of Fiji TV’s Taste of Paradise. Season 4 premieres August 30 on Fiji One TV.