In Spanish they are called cangrejos de rio, (literally “river crabs”), although in English you may call them cayfish, crawdads, crawfish or mudbugs. Crayfish have always been a popular Spanish food, and catching them meant spending a pleasant day on the banks of a nearby river for many a Spanish family.
Crayfish are small crustaceans that look very much like their larger cousins the lobster. However, cangrejos de rio live in fresh water streams and ponds, not salt water. They can measure from about 2 to 40 centimeters (1 to 16 inches)! The average crayfish that we cook is about 5-6 inches long, although you may find larger. There are generally about 12 crayfish in a pound. Meat from both the tails and claws are eaten. Like the crayfish in the photos, the “American” or “California” type have larger front claws than the those native to Spain.
Crayfish dig their burrows in the banks of streams or ponds and feed off both animal and plant material. Baited traps are set out to attract the crayfish, similar to those used to catch crabs. In the 1980’s, the population of native crayfish in Spain was decimated by several events: over-fishing, a virus and the introduction of non-native species. Subsequently, laws were passed in every Autonomous Community in Spain to regulate and limit the crayfish catch. Penalties are strict and can include prison time, so if you plan on catching your own in Spain, be sure to check local laws.
How do you Store Live Cangrejos de Rio?
When you purchase live crayfish, they may given to you in a burlap bag. If you will cook them within a few hours, store them in a closed container or bag in the refrigerator because you do not want them to wander!
How do you Cook and Eat Cangrejos de Rio?
These tasty creatures can be cooked many different ways. Although most people simply boil them or add them to soup, we prefer a tomato sauce or sofrito, as in our recipe Cangrejos de Rio en Tomato. Remember that just like lobsters, clams, mussels and other shellfish, it is important to only cook live crayfish (unless purchased pre-cooked). If a crayfish is not moving, pick it up by the body. If it still does not move, discard it.
When eating crayfish, you must eat them with your hands, peeling the shell from the tail and cracking the claws open to get at the meat. Spaniards generally like to suck the juices from the torso of the crayfish, since the body is flavorful.
Special Note for USA Residents
For those readers who live in the USA, cooked crayfish may be available through local fish markets or grocery stores. For example, in Northern California crayfish are abundant and are readily purchased through the meat dept.’s grocery store. In fact, most of the crayfish catch from the Sacramento River is frozen, then exported to Northern Europe.