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Crab boil: Count on a mess and a meal full of fun and flavour. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Jill Dupleix

What is it?

It's a messy, hands-on meal of boiled crab, big in the US, especially the deep south. Whole crabs, sweetcorn, potatoes and often smoky sausage are boiled in a spicy stock, tossed in garlicky butter and piled in the middle of the table as a communal feast.

Where is it?

In Melbourne, you can hear the thwack of wooden mallets cracking crab claws from outside Miss Katie's Crab Shack, as diners inside get down and dirty with blue swimmer crabs, smoked kransky sausage and cobs of corn.

"The idea is to get messy and just have fun," says Katie Marron.

She flavours the boiling water with white vinegar, beer, and her version of Old Bay Seasoning, considered mandatory by crab-lovers from Maryland to Martha's Vineyard, and serves the steaming hot crabs with pots of melted butter also flavoured with Old Bay.

At the new House of Crabs upstairs at the Norfolk in Sydney's Redfern, you can choose Cajun, Mexican, Oriental or lemon pepper butter sauce for your blue swimmers, with creole corn, Cajun fries and lobster rolls available as sides. "We've given the traditional crab boil a bit of variety," says the Norfolk's Jaime Wirth.

"It's great date food, because there's lots of activity. It's not like sitting opposite each other with two steaks."

Why do I care?

Because it's just the best-ever, finger-lickin', beer-lovin', darn tootin' way to eat crabs, that's why.

Can I do it at home?

Yes, if you cover the table with butcher's paper and stock up on fresh (not frozen) blue swimmer crabs. Tip: eat outside and hose down afterwards.

Sourcing

VICTORIA

Miss Katie's Crab Shack, The Public Bar, 236 Victoria Street, North Melbourne. 03 9329 9888.

NSW

House of Crabs, Level 1, The Norfolk, 305 Cleveland Street, Redfern 02 9699 3177

Crab boil

Make your own ''Old Bay'' crab boil spice mix to have on hand - it's addictive.

4 to 6 uncooked blue swimmer crabs
3 tbsp salt
10 small potatoes
3 corn cobs, cut into chunks
125g chilled butter, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
2 tbsp parsley, chopped

''Old Bay'' crab boil spice mix:

2 tbsp celery seed
1 tbsp each of black pepper, brown mustard seeds, coriander seeds
2 dried bay leaves
2 tsp each sea salt, paprika
1 tsp each cayenne, garlic powder, allspice

1. Grind the whole seeds and bay leaves to a powder, and mix with sea salt, paprika, cayenne, garlic powder and allspice.

2. Bring a big (10-litre) pot of water to the boil. Add 3 tbsp salt, 2 tbsp spice mix, potatoes and corn and cook for 20 minutes until tender.

3. Add the crabs and bring back to the boil. Simmer for six minutes or until cooked, then drain.

4. Insert a sharp knife at the back of the head shell and lever off the shell. Discard the feathery ''dead man's fingers'', then chop the crab into quarters.

5. Combine the butter, garlic, parsley and 2 tbsp of the spice mix in a pan and cook until hot and just melted. Toss the crabs (and their shells), corn and potatoes in the butter, pile on a platter and serve hot.

Serves 4