For a seafood lover, oyster crabs sound like the most delicious sea creature that ever existed. But what exactly are these little guys? Are they a mollusk? Are they a crustacean? Technically, they are a tiny kleptoparasite crab that you'll find hiding inside an oyster. Oyster crabs, or pea crabs as they are better known, are tiny soft-bodied crabs about the size of a penny that dwell inside oysters.
This relationship begins early as a pea crab will find an oyster to inhabit while both are still in the larvae stage. There, the pea crab takes shelter inside the oyster's gills and feeds off its food - well, the females do anyway, the males live in the open water. This may sound like bad news for the oyster, but don't worry, oysters living in water with abundant plankton have plenty of food so they can handle hosting these tiny crabs. While these crabs can be found as far south as Brazil, they are often found inside harvested oysters from the Chesapeake Bay.
If you happen to shuck an oyster and find one of these little orange guys hiding inside, consider yourself lucky. Finding a pea crab inside your oyster is like finding a pearl, only better because they are a delicious delicacy you can eat. Try them raw or fry them in a pan, like an oyster you can have this crab both ways. Soft with a slight crunch, pea crabs have all the flavor of a larger crab stuffed into its tiny body. Some even have described them as shrimp like, although they are a bit sweeter and salty.
If you've had more than your share of oysters, you're probably wondering right now why you have never had or even heard of a pea crab. The reasoning for this is because in the restaurant industry, pea crabs are somewhat of a nuisance. Chefs are tossing out the pea crabs before they even have a chance to reach your table. One chef even claimed they toss as many as 1,000 in a day.
Why would they do such a thing? While they may get an abundance of oyster, there's no guarantee on the amount of pea crabs they'll have to fill orders. Do I sense a potential for a future special? Beyond supplies, there's also the problem of education.
In the culinary world, serving up an oyster with a side of crab may sound too good to be true, but when guests get a shucked oyster placed in front of them with a tiny foreign creature, they're more likely to send their dish back. Pea crabs are not on menus, so people don't know they even exist, much less are edible. Considering lobster were once considered a garbage food, the culinary industry may be able to change all that.
Until pea crabs become the next big thing, when you visit the oyster bar tell your server if there's a pea crab in your oyster you want it. While you won't find them listed on the menu, if they have oysters, chances are they have pea crabs.