• Shona McCarthy

Feeling Nippy: Live Crabs in Springvale Market

(I originally wrote this long before Covid-19 was a problem. I hope that by the time Covid-19 ends, this shopping strip will still be open and capable of serving customers.)

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One of the wonderful things about my hometown of Springvale, Victoria is that you can experiences a lot of Asian culture for very little cost. It's in the South East in the Melbourne Metropolitan Area, just down the Pakenham, Cranbourne and Dandenong train lines.. I can write about Springvale's points of interest in general. But the best known and most famous is probably a little corridor called Springvale Market.

(Photos I took of the entrance to Springvale Market. You can find it along Springvale Road, close to the train station. 2019.)

A pregnant Vietnamese friend of mine contacted me one day. She lived all the way up near Warrandyte, Victoria where it is extremely difficult to get authentic Asian foods and condiments. "Can you please bring me a big, lively crab?" She asked very sweetly. And how could I refuse my lovely and very pregnant friend?

What followed was a strange adventure. At the entrance of Springvale Market are some Asian jewelry stores, two of which have been there for decades. They are worth a look to see how Asian jewelry stores vary from places like Bevilles or Prouds. Lots of jade and jade-like stones. Lots of golden Buddhas. A curiously prosaic store layout, with everything sitting in little compartmentalized trays instead of gift boxes and fake lady necks.

(Photos I took of shops in Springvale Market, 2019.)

Further within you'll see a children's clothing store which has also been there since time immemorial. There is what was once a shop for getting your photos developed, but it is now more of a general store where cheap tissue boxes can be purchased. But the essential photoshop layout has remained. There are some hairdressers where haircuts come as cheap as $10. But the real excitement is the live food.

While you can buy precooked foods from small eateries which seem to specialise in Vietnamese style cuisine, there are many fish shops and butchers packing this little gangway with intense smells and bustling streams of shoppers. Many of the standard seafood items can be seen here, but there are also more exotic varieties to be found. Like live conches and sea urchins.

(Many fresh seafood and meats I saw in the Market. 2019.)

On this particular day, I was there for a live mud crab, and I was told that more than $40/kg would be too much. On the day I went most places were selling the crabs for around $48 a kilo. I have since returned to the same alley and found that the same species of crab for $56/kg. Prices for seafood tends to fluctuate since fishmongers can only sell what they get. But there is also an element of craftiness in buying crabs.

My friend had made it clear that she wanted me to get a very lively crab. The reason this matters is because weak crabs can be diseased crabs. They aren't as fresh, either, so they probably won't taste as good and won't be as safe. But the thing is, when you go to look at live mud crabs, they are usually carefully bound up with plastic twine. Or they're resting in a tank. So they look like they're dead, or sleeping. You can look closely and often see one or two that are foaming at the mount. Or you might see their legs or feelers move very slightly.

It's important to remember that crabs are aquatic animals. They are used to being able to move freely from shore to sea. And by the time you're looking at them, they've usually been sitting high and dry for hours. In order to get them to show how alive they really are, you need to move them. So, sellers you ask about them will often grab and upturn them to show them to you. You'll see the long, spindly crab legs flail wildly for a time. But after a while, the crab will relent and go back to sleep. I have wondered if bringing a stick to poke the crabs would be a good idea. But then, I don't know how the sellers would react.

(These must be the boxes the crabs are transported in. I photographed them close to the Asian supermarkets. 2019.)

I walked up to one of the shops selling mudcrabs. I approached them because they were the only place that had a crab that seemed to be standing and walking around, and so I thought they were the only place that could fulfill the liveliness requirement. They had no price sign up, so I asked them how much they were per crab. "$45 for a female, $42 for a male." They told me. For a time I stood there confused and dumb-founded, wondering why the gender of the crab should make such a big difference to their price. So the vendor started loudly shouting, "$45 female, $42 male!" at me over and over, as he turned a crab over and started pointing urgently at it's genitals. It was like I accidentally walked into some sort of Crab-Cabaret. It was at this moment that I began to question my life. "Why is this man pointing at crab genitals so enthusiastically? Should I look where he is pointing? What am I looking for? And if I found it, would I have committed and immorality?" I later related the bizarre experience to my friend, and she explained that female crabs tend to contain some crab caviar and this is why they cost more. But I digress.

(Crabs, and more crabs I photographed in Springvale. 2019.)

I didn't want to settle on that price, since I wanted to think I could find cheaper in the area,. After all, Springvale is full of various seafood stores. But after a long walk about the various shopping centres in the area, I knew I wasn't going to find a better price. So I went back to them, and they told me it was $48 for a female! and $45 for a male! I was very upset. For a time I tried to argue and insist upon the original price with the vendor. But they wouldn't yield. So, I turned away and looked for another place. Next door to them I found the shop had a broader variety of crabs. You could get cut-rate crabs who had one claw missing. You could get big crabs, small crabs, male, female, older, newer, and each had different price points. so, in the end I settled on a pair of female crabs for $46. I got them to put those crabs in a bag while I went away and got some cash at an ATM. All of these fish sellers are cash only as I write this. I imagine this may change one day, but it will likely take a long time.

As I came back with the cash, my friend told me she only wanted one crab rather than 2, which I told the vendor. As I tried to decide which crab to keep, one started snipping and snapping her claws so determinedly that she shredded the bag she was being placed in. Resolutely, I told the vendor that she was the one I wanted.

(Veronica the crab, in a bag with a friend. Taken by me, 2019)

I took this crab home. She was heavy in the bag, and I was a little afraid of her. Upon getting her home I placed her in a basin, named her Veronica and my father and brother helped me mix some salt water for her to breathe in.

(A selfie with Veronica. I decided I wanted her last day on earth to be as nice as I could make it. 2019.)

I was amazed at the extent to which she perked up once she was covered in the water. Her red eyes brightened and she seemed to look up at me knowing that I was benevolent, since she did not fight her fetters. Later that night, I attempted to feed her a meatball. But she was bound in such a manner that she could not open her mouth to eat. I was tempted to untie her, but then I knew getting her to my friend would be so much harder if I did this. I was able to get her to my friend's house alive, but only just. Poor Veronica was only just barely breathing when she got there. In retrospect, I think I should have simply bought the crab on the same day that I was going to visit my friend, with the knowledge that she would likely understand if I was a little late. But some lessons are best learned through experience. I have learned that the humane way to kill and cook a crab is to place them in a freezer for five minutes so that they fall asleep and then you throw them directly in hot water. But my friend assured me that stabbing them through their heart is better.

It may seem strange to some that I was so kind to a crab even though I fully intended for my friend to eat it. In fact, I love eating crab myself. Certainly, my friend found it odd. But as I told her and I'll tell you now, every animal dies sooner or later. I feel that if you can give its life and death meaning by eating it, that is a good thing. You can enjoy its flesh gratefully, share it witha friend. You could go on to do good things with the strength you got from it. But, of course, only after dispatching it as humanely as possible.

More Reasons To Visit

There are other good things to see in Springvale Market itself. There are many beautiful florists at one end, just near two Asian grocery stores packed with fresh greens.

(Flowers and more food, photographed by me in 2019.) As a tourist location, Springvale Market is in an excellent place to get a sense of an older Springvale. There is a nostalgia to the place since little about it has changed as far as I can remember. The corridor is oddly lined with many closed, old style jewellery shops, adding to that sense of nostalgia. But there are new additional shops added within the past few years just past the Asian supermarkets.

Since it is close to the Springvale Asian gateway, and two of Springvale's shopping centres, it would be very easy to wander the area for the day, trying new foods and drinks. But maybe that is a post for another time.

For me this place, and Springvale over all has a special place in my heart. I've been wandering its streets and alleys since I was a small child. When I'm there, I get the odd sensation of being a child and an adult all at once. I wonder if you will feel that too when visiting.

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