Miyako Island was the first place I saw a coconut crab. “Gross!” was my initial reaction. The locals said they were preparing crab soup for dinner and asked me to join, but I declined their invitation.
I finally tasted it ten years later, during a visit to the Yaeyama Islands. The bowl of soup was so delicious I almost forgot my date of birth. Its flavor was as good as that of lobsters and crabs. There is a rakugo (comic story) in which a feudal lord visits Meguro, where he tastes the commoners’ saury dish and is surprised by its deliciousness, resulting in him repeatedly saying “Meguro’s saury, Meguro’s saury” in delirium for days and nights. I wasn’t that delirious, but I could perfectly understand his feelings. I even regretted missing the chance to eat it in Miyako some ten years earlier.
The crab looked like a monster version of a hermit crab, but its taste didn’t seem to match its appearance. They must eat coconuts, as their name suggests, but in Okinawa, they mostly eat the fruit of screw pines. The crab cracks open the hard skin with its powerful claws, skillfully cutting the fruit into pieces and placing them into its mouth. In the northern part of Ishigaki Island, someone told me that they eat potatoes and fruit on their farms. But the ones I encountered in Yonaguni Island and the Ibaruma area of Ishigaki were all climbing the screw pines in search of fruit.
Accompanying a maker of angama (a mask worn by the dancers of the Bon Festival), I once walked around a forest of jack-in-the-box fruit trees (Hernandia nymphaeifolia) on the Yasura Coast in northern Ishigaki. The tree provides the ideal material for making angama masks, while its fruit is also popular with the coconut crab. The mask maker said, “You must be careful not to eat coconut crabs that eat jack-in-the-box fruits. They are toxic.”
The coconut crab is a species of terrestrial hermit crab. Even though they belong to the hermit crab family, they use the shells of sea snails for just a short period before growing larger. An older coconut crab will leave the shell and live with its skin exposed. In order to not be eaten by wild boars and dogs, it develops a hard skin that functions as armor. Its large, powerful claws are a lethal weapon. They can easily cut a pencil or two in half.
“Do you want to test its power with your finger?” A local once asked me, but… no way.
The crab’s meat is the rarest delicacy and some people have even gambled on trying to farm them and make a fortune, but I’ve never heard of their success.
I’ve heard there are people who ordered a coconut crab and were surprised by how much they were charged. Perhaps they were overcharged for being Japanese tourists. But still, the story demonstrates how the coconut crabs are appreciated for their taste.
It may be too much to say that coconut crab, which can be equally flavorful boiled or grilled, is the king of rare local dishes. But not anymore. The population of coconut crabs has been decreasing year after year. They are now classified as a rare species in the Okinawa Red Data Book.1
- The coconut crab was classified as a vulnerable species in the 2017 edition of the Okinawa Red Data Book.