A popular table crustacean caught in Australian waters Ibacus peronii. They are fished from along the whole eastern seaboard of Australia, but for some reason they are named after the harbour side Sydney suburb of Balmain. They are very similar to Moreton Bay bugs Thenus orientalis, another popular eating crustacean named after Moreton Bay, near Brisbane, some 1000 km to the north of Balmain.
Balmain bugs grow to a length of around 20 cm, the edible section residing in the tail. Once prepared, the meat will resemble that of a rock lobster in shape, albeit at slightly bigger than the size of a large prawn (shrimp). Bug meat is very sweet, a flavour reminscent of prawns with a slightly firmer texture. When whole, the bugs look quite fearsome, bearing more than just a passing resemblance to a trilobite.
Similar crustacea are caught around the world, going by names such as slipper lobster, shovel-nosed lobster and cigale de mer, but I understand that outside Australia they are not held in high esteem for the table. This could be good news for you. If you find some for sale at a fish market, they will most likely be very cheap because of low demand, which was the same situation in Australia with lobsters and prawns around 20 years ago.
Alright, if you snapped up a cheap bag of bugs, here is a recipe. Don't worry if you couldn't get any, try any crustacean instead, prawns, shrimp, crab, lobster, whatever.
Balmain bug salad with coconut
1 kg Balmain bugs (or substitute)
125ml (1/2 cup) coconut cream
1 Tbs peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
1 hot chilli, sliced
1 small piece of ginger, peeled and grated
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, peeled and sliced (optional)
2 kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded (or use the grated peel of 1 lime)
3 shallots, sliced
1 handful coriander (cilantro) leaves
1 handful, mint leaves
Juice of 1 lime
1 Tbs fish sauce
1 Tbs palm sugar, grated (or use soft brown sugar)
50 gm peanuts (groundnuts) roasted and crushed
If your bugs are uncooked, boil them in salted water or seawater for about 8 minutes. If cooked, you just need to peel them. Turn the bugs on their back and with scissors or a small sharp knife, cut the shell down the middle of the soft underbelly. Peel away the shell and head. Set the meat aside and reserve the shells.
In a large pot, heat the oil to high and fry the chilli, ginger, garlic, lemongrass and lime leaves for 2 minutes. Add the reserved shells and saute for a couple of minutes. Add 750 ml (3 cups) water and simmer over medium heat for 30 minutes. Strain and discard solids.
Pour the bug stock into a small saucepan and reduce over medium heat until only 125 ml (1/2 cup) remains. This is a shellfish essence. Add the coconut cream, fish sauce and sugar, simmer and taste to check balance. Does it need more salt or sugar? Leave to cool, then add the lime juice.
In a large bowl toss together the bug meat, herbs and shallots and dress with the coconut sauce. It just needs to coat the salad, so if there is any sauce left, pass it separately. Pile the salad onto a serving plate and scatter with the peanuts and some more herbs. Serve with freshly steamed jasmine rice and maybe a flinty young Riesling or a Gewurztraminer
A short note on how to deal with live shellfish. If you were lucky enough to procure some live bugs, plunging them directly into boiling water is more than a little barbaric. The most humane method is placing them into a freezer for half an hour to stun. I don't imagine this cool treatment is extraordinarily pleasant either, but it is a hell of a lot better than live boiling, which I have seen done…they DO feel the pain.