I still have to meet someone that, when asked to describe one of their most memorable meals, will tell you that it was had in the middle of a commercial port …but if I were asked that same question, you would hear me tell you about a memorable crab feast I had for the first time about 10 years ago, and then again, last week, in…Karachi.
I first enjoyed this meal in 2005, when I was still working in Afghanistan and had to go to Karachi to follow up on some print job. The memory of that delicious dinner has been etched in my mind ever since. Since then I have been back to Pakistan quite a few times, but never had the opportunity to repeat that experience, until last week…and it was as amazing as the first time I lived it.
First of all, you need to take care of logistics: this is not some restaurant where you just show up. The whole dinner takes place on a little sailing boat, in the middle of the main port of Karachi, and it needs to be arranged 24 hours prior. You first need to secure a boat. Then you need to find a Captain – specifically one that can sail AND cook – ensuring that you not only survive the trip, but get fed in the process. There are a handful of boats that you can hire, but only a limited number of sea-faring captains that have the culinary know-how to deliver an excellent meal.
Once you have secured the boat & captain, you tell him how many people you will be, and what food (CRAB!) and drinks you would like to have (by drinks, I mean SOFT drinks – as Pakistan is, officially, a DRY country).
The boats are berthed right in the heart of the commercial port of Karachi, in a little marina off the main highway. We got there around 8 pm and were met by our Captain…who could not speak a word of English and was wearing (unknowingly) one of the funniest t-shirts I have ever encountered in a profoundly religious country. It read: Viagra’s for wimps. Hilarious.
The boat is specifically rigged for this crab extravaganza, with a dining table and comfortable seats in the stern, and a gas fire, pots and kitchen utensils towards the prow. While the Captain steered the boat out of the marina into the main port, his two sailor-slash-sous-chefs started prepping dinner. All the ingredients are sourced that day, and if you poke your nose towards the front of the boat you will see that the crabs are mostly still alive, unaware and probably convinced they are setting off on some fancy cruise…
As we sailed along into the warm Karachi evening, surrounded by gigantic and majestic oil tankers and other small commercial fishing boats, the sous chefs were a beehive of activity, peeling potatoes, sifting flour, grinding spices and prepping the crabs. When the pot of water starts boiling, the cooking commences.
First up, as appetizers, are the potatoes – they are boiled, cut into slices and quickly fried, transforming them into crunchy crisps that are served with a spicy red paste. One should exert total self-control and not have 300 of them, as tempting at this may be. If you do, you will find yourself regretting not having left more space for the delicacies that follow.
Second up – little crab cakes – slightly pan-fried, just enough to give them a crispy outer texture and a warm, soft crab heart. I think I could easily set a world record for number of crab cakes eaten in a minute. These are mouthfuls of amazingness, with just enough kick to counter the sweetness of the crabmeat and the sauce that accompanies them. No Oliver, you can’t have more than 10…ok, 15. Can you count? That was more like 24.
Next: sautéed baby shrimp tails in a sweet and sour sauce – to be scooped up from your plate not with with an oh-so-predictable fork, but with generous slices of warm naan. By then, I think I had uttered no more than 10 words to my fellow dining companions, along the lines of: MMMMMMM, amazing, yes please, thank you, can you pass the napkins?
The star of the show had still not graced us with his presence, and already we had showered the stage with flowers.
Then, out of the bubbling pan came they came: pink, juicy, nugget-sized little crabs, boiled and sautéed in a curried paste, trimmed of their extremities, ready to be cracked open and devoured by yours truly…and my hosts. And when you thought that was the pinnacle of the show…along came a plate piled high with juicy crab legs, more commonly referred to here as lollipops (adult version). When one plate is polished off another duly arrives, piping hot and ready to be devoured.
And so this wonderful dinner carried on, in this unlikely setting, surrounded by silent boats moored for the night, the lights on the ships shining bright and illuminating the bay, a gentle breeze blowing.
It truly remains one of the best meals I have ever had and If you ever happen to be in Karachi, do yourself a favor and plan it. Actually, if you REALLY want to do yourself a favor, regardless if you happen to be in Karachi or not, take a flight there just to experience this meal. Beats hanging out in Dubai, no question.
Pictures don’t do justice to what my senses experienced. My limited mastery of words does not allow me to truly narrate this culinary experience. The only thing I can say is that I wish I could have shared this dinner with the people closest to me.
NOTE: You will probably find that the pictures that accompany this brief write-up are somewhat average; I concur. BUT, I have somewhat of an excuse (although only a mild one, given that this is Food under Fire and not Marie Claire!): photography is strictly banned in the port of Karachi and there are military patrol boats ready to pounce on any wrong-doer… every time I took a picture our Viagra captain had a panic attack…and I did not want to be the first Westerner to get locked up in Karachi for shooting a crab feast! So I took them stealthily and fast, no flash, on an Iphone.
HOW TO ARRANGE IT: It’s not easy, and you’ll need a local with an excellent command of Urdu to set it up, but cooking-captains can be found at the port. Contact me through this website and I can help you out!
Oliver Sanna is an Aussie-Italian spending most of his time in London but occasionally jetting off to dangerous places in search of the finest leather money can buy. Or, he’s a spy. You’ll never know…