Featuring photo credit: Lauren Shannon
Japan is renowned for its fresh and delicious seafood. Every year winter marks the start of crab season, where unlike any other fish, crustacean, or shellfish, crab becomes the dominant flavor of seafood. Crab season occurs from November to March, becoming widely available in fish markets, supermarkets, and restaurants across Japan. Snow crabs, red king crabs, and horsehair crabs are the three most popular crabs found throughout the season.
Snow crab (ズワイガニ)
Snow crabs are famous for their tender meat with sweet and savory umami flavor. They are the most common crab seen across Japan during winter, as they can only be caught during the five months of the crab season. Depending on where snow crabs are from, they can have different names. Matsuba crabs (松葉ガニ) are snow crabs from Shimane and Tottori Prefectures, whereas echizen crabs (越前ガニ) are from Fukui Prefecture.
Red king crab (タラバガニ)
Red king crabs are frequently found in Hokkaido and are known for having dense meat with a light flavor. They received their name due to the rich red color they turn after being cooked.
Horsehair Crab (毛ガニ)
Horsehair crabs, given their name from their hairy appearance, are commonly found in Hokkaido. They are the smallest of the three and have less meat, however they are known for having a strong sweet flavor.
As crab is the king of winter seafood, there are many ways to enjoy it, especially from seafood markets and specialty seafood restaurants in Japan. Now, let’s take a look at five of the most popular ways to eat crab in Japan.
Simple is best: boiled crab (茹でガニ)
The best way to enjoy the natural flavor of any crab is simply boiled. The entire crab is boiled in salted water, with the taste changing depending on the amount of salt added and the cooking time. Boiled crab is slightly salty and can be enjoyed alone, however, to enhance the crab’s umami flavor it is often dipped in kani-su (蟹酢), a sweet sauce with a base of vinegar and soy sauce. As crab is readily available across Japan, you have the option of buying fresh crab from markets and taking it home to cook, or better yet, visiting one of the local seafood restaurants.
Crab sashimi and crab sushi (カニ刺身・カニ寿司)
Sashimi is one of the simplest and easiest ways to enjoy fresh crab. Usually made from leg meat, crab sashimi has a tender texture and is recommended to be eaten with a dab of wasabi and dipped in soy sauce. Another way to enjoy crab sashimi is in kaisendon (海鮮丼), a seafood rice bowl. Vinegared rice is topped with various crustacean and fish sashimi, including crab, tuna, squid, and/or shrimp. If raw fish isn’t your forte, you can also try crab sushi, a delicious mix of sweet, boiled crab on vinegared rice.
Grilled crab and kani miso (焼きガニ・カニみそ)
If you’re looking to try a popular Japanese delicacy, then kani miso and grilled crab is the way to go. The crab is cut into pieces then cooked over an open charcoal grill and is best enjoyed with lemon or sudachi (a Japanese citrus) to enhance the sweetness of the grilled meat. After removing the meat, the crab’s insides are grilled in the shell, ensuring no part of the crab goes to waste. The result is kani miso, a green or gray paste with a slightly bitter flavor that pairs well with Japanese sake and is commonly used to dip crab meat in or as a topping for sushi. Different crabs have distinct tastes, with horsehair crab said to have the most delicious kani miso, offering a deep and rich flavor.
Crab shabu (カニしゃぶ)
Crab shabu is the perfect dish for those cold winter nights. Just like other shabu shabu, crab shabu is a Japanese hotpot dish that receives its name from the noise that is made when you swish the meat through the dashi. Usually snow crab or red king crab legs are parboiled alone, or with vegetables, and removed once they change color. Altering the cooking time allows you to experience different textures of the meat, so you can cook the crab to suit your own taste. The best way to savor crab shabu is dipped in soy sauce or vinegar once removed from the dashi.
Kani meshi (カニ飯)
The perfect way to finish a crab course is with kani meshi. Kani meshi, which directly translates as crab rice, is a rice bowl covered with crab. It is similar to kaisendon, as it is rice topped with seafood. However, in kani meshi the rice is cooked with crab, then topped with additional crab to bring out the delicious umami flavor. This meal lets you enjoy the natural flavors with the simple combination of crab and rice.
These are just a few examples of the many ways to eat crab in Japan. Make sure to try some of these delicious dishes if you visit here during crab season. Our team of local experts can even offer great crab restaurant recommendations and even help with reservations as part of our travel consulting services.