I hear this time and time again from frequent visitors to Thailand. ”We always want to go to Huahin, but its sooo far away” If the words ‘Crab Heaven’ make your legs go tingly and jaws tightened in anticipation for cracking shells, you need to take the 2 – 4 hour journey from Bangkok to Huahin. This place….of course, is 30 – 60mins away in Pranburi, google ‘Pranburi Resorts’ if you intend to stay there instead of the main tourist hub of Huahin.
There are only 2 ways to get there, drive, or grab a cab. You can get the GPS coordinates below, but if you are going the taxi route, get your concierge to make a deal with the cab to bring you there and back. Throw in a crab lunch for your cabby and it’ll be too hard a deal for him to resist! I’m not sure how much a return fare is gonna cost, but personally, I’m willing to pay 1000 baht for the ride there and back. Don’t offer that of course, let the cabbie tell you how much!
This pool of coral crabs are for the uninformed who failed to book their crabs for lunch. Allowed to swim freely until they are despatched, they offer a bit of consolation for those who have made the journey to Pranburi without booking their meal.
These brown crabs (Mud crabs, Mangrove crabs) are the business! Growing up to 3.5kgs in the wild, us SE Asians will know that these are some of the tastiest crabs around! Whilst eating a Japanese King Crab is a tasty experience in itself, I just might grab for one of these mud crabs first if both were placed in front of me! It seems to me that there is just more flavour to these mud crabs, or perhaps its the satisfaction from digging around for your meat!
The poor suckers are steamed and chopped, and the shirtless uncle chopping ‘em up has an interesting story of his own. On weekdays, he is a professor of logistics at the Japanese Thai Institute (TPA) in Bangkok. Yok Sod is his weekend getaway where he can indulge in his true passion for food. In his younger days, he trained and worked as a cook, and it shows in his attention to detail, run down restaurant shack not-withstanding.
We took our seats on the edge of the estuary and saw thousands upon thousands of tiny crabs going about their business. Pranburi is near the gulf of Thailand and we were sat next to one of the many tributaries that feed it. We spied fish feeding on these crabs, along with kingfishers and wild storks at the top of the mangrove food chain. The crabs are gathered from the wild and fattened on farms along the estuaries for eating. If these thousands of wild crablets (sic) are anything to go by, I’d say this is a highly sustainable industry! These mangrove crabs we were about to eat were grown just down the road, and the amazing quality of crabs here is a story in itself, to be told later! On to the food!
We started the meal with Tom Yum Pla Thu, an intensely flavoured clear Tom Yum with steamed, fresh Pla Thu on the side. This short bodied mackerel is oftentimes sold in baskets of three, head snapped downwards to facilitate packing and boiled in salted water to extend their shelf life. Fatty Mackerel tend to degrade very quickly, unlike fish like Sole which benefit from a few days of ageing to improve flavour.
Here, they are fresh off the boats in the morning and have a sweet savoury flavour with a hint of Mackerel’s delicious fattiness. This was the best Tom Yum Pla Thu we’ve eaten, the Tom Yum intense but balanced, with its sprightly nature complementing the snow soft mackerel. We weren’t expecting the side dishes to distract us from the main show….but boy were we wrong!
Seablite was on the cards next, an estuary vegetable that grows wild in saline waters. Just like Samphire in Europe, this vegetable has a unique savory tang and a crunchy heart. Perhaps it was blanched in fresh water prior to cooking just like Samphire to take off the salt? I’m not sure, having seen this veg for the first time.
Cooked over high heat with chili, soy sauce and tiny local garlic, this dish made me wonder why I’ve never seen it before! I will be looking out for seablite now, its a fantastic vegetable!
We could not resist ordering the prawns too, and they were smashingly fresh as well, but then again, we just ate them the night before in Huahin. Great prawns are not in short supply in this region! Excellent nonetheless, but we were awaiting the main show.
Large crabs, booked at 9 in the morning for a table of 2. Oh yea! Loaded with roe that was oh so damn *&^%ing sweet. These were the best mud crabs we ever had. They were harvested from the farms down the road only a few hours ago. “They don’t travel so well”, is what the uncle told us. Perhaps seafood are no different from mammals? Transportation is stressful and the stress hormones screw with the meat’s pH and mush up the meat and depletes it of its natural flavour. Does this happen to seafood too? Who knows.
What we do know is that here, they are creamy, sweet, savoury, chunky with that tender, flaking quality. You don’t need any sauce or condiment other than a quick swipe in its own roe to send you deeper into crab heaven. Scrape out its innards (Brains) with a spoon and eat it with rice and you get a rich, umami mouthful that will leave you groaning in pleasure.
For the best steamed crab, his secret is to steam only a lively crab (Dying or dead ones are discarded). He left out the part where he instinctively cooks different batches of crabs at the same time, pulling them out as they each perfection, dipping them into cool water to stop the cooking before chopping them up. The other secret, is the story of how Yok Sod came to be.
Between plucking crabs in and out of the steamer and chopping ‘em up, he regaled to us how years ago, he did a project with the universities in this area. He saw how unscrupulous middlemen were lowballing crab prices, which they then sold on to restaurants for a huge profit. Farmers, as we know, always get screwed, so this uncle decided to open a crab shack, buying only the best crabs the farmers had for up to 3 times the going price.
Yok Sod, in return, charges its dining customers a low price due to its location and his need to attract customers. High volume, low profit. The only problem was that this was in the middle of nowhere! The strategy was simple at the start, placing signs on the road telling people that there was cheap crab to be had at Yok Sod. The road that passes Yok Sod services seaside resorts and perhaps a golf course and military camp. This well travelled road just needed a gourmet destination and Yok Sod filled tha gap! No sane Asian can ever pass up the chance for cheap crabs, and one only needs to taste Yok Sod crabs once to become an evangelist for their cause.
So, the farmers win, the customers win, but…..uncle Yok Sod became victim to harassment and threats of bodily harm from the unscrupulous middlemen. As Yok Sod’s fame grew, so did the efforts to bring them down. These middlemen were jealous of his success and accused him of spoiling the market. They vandalized his signs, tearing them down to affect his business.
Thankfully, Yok Sod Uncle didn’t retaliate, but took the middle path, understanding that everyone has to make a living. Therefore, in order to continue helping the farmers earn more, he just kept his mouth shut, took down all the signs and quietly continued to run Yok Sod with no fanfare. Thats why this is the crab heaven not many people know about. In a rare case of civility, the middlemen stopped harassing him too. Perhaps they tasted his crabs and realised that it takes a special talent to elevate a simple dish of steamed crab into a gastronomic feat?
Yok Sod operates during the weekday as well, manned by his staff. Perhaps there is a profit sharing system going on? Who knows, but talking to this uncle, it feels like he doesn’t really care about the money. He really loves his job as a weekend chef, enjoying nothing more than steaming and chopping crabs while the rest of his family and friends do the rest. There is magic in Yok Sod’s crabs, and the uncle just humbly says its the crabs and the land that make it taste good. One thing’s for sure, Pranburi and its wonderful crabs would be worst off without his efforts.
I would give this place 3 spare tyres, definitely worth a journey. I have no idea how to read this card, but the information follows:
GPS Coordinates: N12.19420, E99.99381
Phone: 085-0657123 or 0868832356
Remember, get your concierge to call ahead to book your crabs. Don’t leave it to chance.