The mere mention of the word "bug" in the kitchen has most breaking out a can of insect spray, but not all bugs are of the buzzing, biting variety. Balmain bugs, also known as slipper lobsters or shovelnose lobsters, are the perfect addition to any barbecue seafood platter or long summer lunch.
Sydney Seafood School manager Roberta Muir has plenty of experience with Balmain bugs, and advises undercooking them above overcooking them (as the residual heat within will continue the cooking process). Choose from endless ways to enjoy them: steamed, poached, deep-fried, pan-fried, boiled, grilled or barbecued and, says Muir, “If boiled whole, they should be cooked until the shells turn just orange all over, then left to cool before the meat’s removed. If they're split or the meat is already removed, cook until the flesh just turns opaque,” she recommends.
Balmain bugs are often overlooked for prawns and lobsters, perhaps due to their peculiar appearance and the misconception that they're difficult to prepare. In reality, bugs are easy to handle and, as well as doing well on the barbecue, their meat is great in salads or tossed through angel hair pasta, and even holds together in curries and stir-fries.
While their texture is similar to that of other crustaceans, Balmain bugs do have a distinctly strong, fishy flavour. To make the most of this, Muir believes simple techniques and ingredients are all that's needed. “Lemon, fresh herbs (dill, chervil, parsley, French tarragon), garlic, green vegetables (asparagus, snow peas, baby beans), mayonnaise and vinaigrette work well,” she says.
Paul Metcalfe, executive chef of Doyles Restaurants, prefers the taste and texture of the Balmain bug over lobster, and agrees they don't take much effort to shine. “[Bugs] work really well sliced down the middle, grilled on the barbecue and served with a great salad,” he says.
A member of the Scyllaridae family, Balmain bugs are found in the ocean that surrounds the Southern half of Australia. They love soft sand and muddy areas, and prefer a water depth of about 150 metres. Their flat shape is perfectly tailored to their environment, as it enables the bug to partly bury itself in the soft sand. Reddish in colour, they have short, flattened antennae, five pairs of legs, and can grow up to 25cm.
There are seven different species of Balmain Bugs, the most common being the Eastern Balmain Bug, which is caught mostly off the coast of NSW. These are available year-round with a peak in summer and autumn.
Where do I begin?
The Sydney Fish Market
’s consumer information website advises that the most humane way to kill a crustacean is to place it in the freezer for 35-45 minutes. Commonly, bugs are sold whole and already cooked, but it’s best to buy them live from a tank (choosing those with legs and antennae intact). Once out of the water, bugs deteriorate quickly and should be stored for a maximum of 48 hours before being cooked.
If you do opt for cooked bugs, look for those bright in colour with tightly curled tails and a fresh sea smell. Cooked or green bugs can be covered in plastic wrap, put in an airtight container and kept in the fridge for up to two days, or kept in the freezer for up to two months.
Bugs can be hard to peel because of their hard shell, so it’s a good idea to ask your fishmonger to cut them in half for you. However, if you prefer the DIY approach, use a sharp knife to split the bug length wise, removing the digestive tract with the tip of the knife.
The below recipes, courtesy of the Sydney Fish Market and Doyles Restaurants, reflect Muir and Metcalfe’s "simple is best" sentiment.