We had originally planned to celebrate Passover/Easter by combining a little bit of what I remember from Catholic school and mixing it with a little bit of Martinican tradition: watching The Prince of Egypt while earnestly singing along and eating frozen stuffed crab from Leader Price…
It became clear Easter was around the corner when crab cages filled with pale yellow land crabs started showing up on roadsides around the island. Meanwhile women I’d never seen before were peddling their fresh colombo paste in the markets and outside of grocery stores. Women walking around with cycas branches on Palm Sunday marked the beginning of Holy Week. As the owner of La Sora (best artisanal juice and liqueur in the area) told me, the palm leaves are blessed at church and hung in people’s homes for good luck until next Easter.
Whereas “there is no Christmas without pigs,” during Easter, “Crab is King.” On February 15th every year, crab hunting season officially begins in Martinique. Crabs are so important that there are two competitions honouring their tastiness and their athleticism. La Crabe d’Or is a festival where “experts in matoutou” judge the best traditional crab curry dish on the island. The other competition, La Patte d’Or is a crab race. Seriously.
Zatraps, traps for catching crabs, are made and placed all around the island. Some hunt to sell the land crabs necessary for Easter meals, others hunt for personal consumption. During the season, they capture and cage the crabs taking care of them (hopefully) until they are sold for 2 to 4 euros per kilo. Not all crab sellers are made equal. The crabs must be purged before consumption and some sellers take care of their crabs for weeks feeding them fruits, coconut, leaves and lettuce, while others catch them and sell them immediately.
Besides purging the crabs yourself or buying the crabs from someone you know, the only way to tell if local crabs have been well-nourished is whether the hairs on their legs have fallen off.
This year, there has been a debate surrounding the importation of frozen crabs from Madagascar. While many argue this is destroying the tradition of catching and eating local crabs, many others purchase them illustrated by the five tonnes of crab that Hyper U sold out of during the Holy Week.
As a majority Catholic country, Good Friday is often marked by attending mass, fasting and/or visiting the local Calvaire—a hike that marks the stations of the cross. In the evening, families gather for dinner and eat accras, typically a codfish fritter. For the special occasion accras are made with breadfruit & tuna, papaya, shrimp or vegetable. I attended Saturday evening service at the Catholic Church in Trinité to see what it was all about. A beautiful service which began with the priest blessing the flame (more of a bonfire) outside the church; this flame was then used to light the candles of all those in attendance. The service proceeded with readings from Genesis and Exodus, as well as new baptisms and the Confirmation ceremony after a few days’ retreat for young students.
Spending time with family at the beach or rivers is also an important part of the Paschal celebrations. Our local beach, Cosmy, was buzzing the entire weekend—tents, cars, bikes, music and pots full of food. Gas/diesel generators meant people were stringing up lights and eating and playing cards and dominoes under canopies. Families cooked grillades of pork chops and chicken, but the Monday lunch linchpin was of course, le matoutou. After the austerity of Lent music was played and people filled their plates, enjoying themselves without moderation.
On Easter Sunday, we invited ourselves to the home of my dance teacher, Michelline, (really, I mixed up the days of the invitation but she welcomed us nonetheless) for roasted lamb which is typically eaten for lunch after attending church. We had the pleasure of helping her prepare the marinade for her matoutou which would be the centrepiece of lunch on Easter Monday. She bought the crabs from Madagascar arguing that they are cleaner (no chlordécone, a pesticide that polluted the island), less expensive and have more flesh.
Unfortunately Michelline fell ill on Monday morning so we took up a tentative invitation my partner received from the grandmother of a student he tutors in Sainte-Marie. We showed up around 1:30PM and after a prayer, lunch was started with a delicious soupe verte followed by a salad with accras. For the first time, we had the pleasure of eating matoutou—the crab curry that is the centrepiece of Easter Monday meals. These crabs were local and a lot of work to eat. We had to break, bite and really get our hands dirty. The thick colombo sauce poured over rice and légumes pays—breadfruit, yam, dasheen, and sweet potato—was delicious and I regalée’d myself with the new discovery. In fact, my nails are still yellow from the spices…
I asked multiple people—why crabs for Easter? Most didn’t know despite their importance to the holiday. Some explained it’s just that crab is local and they are abundant during the season. Michelline explained to me that it’s likely related to the Tainos Indians and their diet of seafood. I also read that it’s a transformation of Spanish paella. Whatever the reason, it’s a delicious tradition that we’ll hopefully get to re-live next weekend when Michelline feels better!
For those brave enough to try making Le Matoutou, here is a recipe!
Ingredients (for 6)
1.5 kg of fresh or frozen crabs
2 tbsp of fresh colombo paste
1tbsp of tomato paste
1 tbsp of graines à roussir (cumin, mustard seed & fenugreek)
1 bouquet garni (green onion, parsley, fresh thyme)
1 fresh tomato
1 scotch bonnet pepper
2 bay or allspice leaves
350g long grain rice
Oil, salt and pepper to taste
- Break the crabs in half and clean them with lemon water.
- Prepare a marinade for the crab. Michelline used grated onion, crushed garlic, fresh thyme, dried oregano and parsley, four-spice, piment végétarien (a chilli pepper with no heat), the oil from pickled scotch bonnet peppers and lime juice. When I asked others what you normally marinate the crab in they said “Tout!”—everything. Marinate the crab for at least 2 hours but preferably overnight.
- Dry fry the graines à roussir in a pot.
- Add 4 tbsp of oil and stir the crab in with its marindate without breaking them. Cook for about 5 minutes.
- Add the colombo paste, tomato paste, crushed cloves, bouquet garni and diced tomato with about 150 mL of water. Let it reduce for about 5 minutes until there is an aromatic paste.
- Add the whole scotch bonnet and the bay leaves. Add enough water to cover the ingredients and let it simmer covered for 25 minutes. If you would like to cook the rice into the dish, add it here.
- Remove the cover and season with salt and pepper, if necessary. Continue to simmer for 10 minutes to reduce the sauce.