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The first time I ate a Cangrejita de Tarija, a tiny river crab from the Bolivian province of Tarija, was at the pop-up of a taqueria in La Paz. The Mexican chef Emilio Macias, who is opening a Mexican Peruvian restaurant called El Diablito in Lima, served them fried and dusted with chicharrón powder and lime zest. Helping him in the kitchen was Bolivian born chef Maria Paula Baldiviezo, who runs Tres Cuartos Burger Bar in Lima. Baldivieso’s father was from Tarija and she had grown up eating them on summer vacations when the family would go to Tomatitos, a town five kilometers away on the banks of the Río Guadalquivir.
“Traditionally they’re served fried with misquinchos (small local fish), mote (corn), and lime wedges. The one great characteristic they have is that they are kind of like a soft-shell crab, so they are easy to eat whole.”
Baldiviezo says that these crabs used to be caught on the shores of the Erquiz and Guadalquivir rivers and were famously served at every restaurant in Tomatitas, but a filtration system was built on the river and there are now few crabs to be found. So, now the restaurants use crabs found near Huacata, San Andrés, San Lorenzo, San Jacinto, and Bermejo, which explains why the crabs may seem bigger and with distinct colors than they once were.
While they aren’t exactly a soft-shell crab, yet the shell is so thin that they almost taste like one. They are also sometimes used in chupes and marinades in the region, according to her.
The Japanese-Bolivian restaurant Jardin de Asia, attached to the Los Tajibos Hotel in Santa Cruz, which hosted the pop-up as part of their Encuentros visiting chef series to ignite culinary creativity in the city, has a research laboratory and test kitchen that seeks out original Bolivian products. They began experimenting with the crabs several years ago, finding ways to introduce them into fine dining. At Jardin de Asia they use the little crabs on a maki roll, boiled and served on top, to be eaten in one bite.