While most of us would think twice about eating insects, one of Australia’s most sought-after seafood species is commonly known as a ‘Bug’. Members of the Scyllaridae (shovel-nosed or slipper lobster) family are closely related to Rock Lobsters, and sometimes called Bay, Squat, Shovelnose, or Slipper Lobsters, mostly due to their broad, squat shape. They often bury themselves in sand or mud during the day and become active after dark, leading to their other common names of sand, or mud, bug. They’re generally available year-round with peaks in late summer and autumn and are a great alternative to Rock Lobsters and Prawns in most recipes.
There are two main types of Bugs available in Australia:
Balmain Bug refers to the seven Ibacus species found in Australia, the largest and most common of which is the Eastern Balmain Bug (Ibacus peronii). Despite their name, they aren’t unique to the Balmain area of Sydney, but are found around the southern half of Australia (with a pocket further north near Broome), though they’re mainly caught off NSW. Their eyes are close to the centre of their shells, and they’re generally smaller than Moreton Bay Bugs with a broader body. Whitetail Bug (Ibacus alticrenatus) and Smooth Bug (Ibacus chacei) are two other common Balmain Bugs.
Moreton Bay Bug is the general name for members of the Thenus species; specifically, the Sand Bug (Thenus australiensis) and Mud Bug (Thenus indicus). They’re found much further afield than Queensland’s Moreton Bay, living around the northern half of Australia’s coast, though caught mainly off northern Queensland. Sand Bugs have spotted legs and brown tail fans, whereas Mudbugs have yellow tail fans. They’re generally larger than Balmain Bugs with a narrower body, and their eyes are on the outer edges of their shells.
Slipper Lobster is another type of Bug harvested recreationally and occasionally seen in regional markets, especially in Queensland. They’re more like a Rock Lobster in size (up to 50cm long), though not in shape, with broad flat bodies, small legs and short broad antennae; unlike other Bugs, their first pair of legs is larger than the rest. There are 2 main species: Blunt Slipper Lobster (Scyllarides squammosus), and Aesop Slipper Lobster (Scyllarides haanii) with more pronounced humps on the abdomen.
Bugs are usually sold whole, sometimes live but often already cooked. If possible buy live from a tank, in which case they should be lively with a hard shell (indicating that they haven’t recently moulted) and all legs and antennae should be intact. Unlike Crabs and Rock Lobsters, Bugs don’t survive well out of water; if buying chilled green (raw dead) Bugs, ask when they were alive, they should only be stored chilled for about 48 hours before being cooked. In cooked Bugs, look for brightly coloured, firm, intact, lustrous shells, without any discolouration, particularly at joints, and a pleasant fresh sea smell. They should feel heavy for their size and their tails should be tightly curled.
Live Bugs won’t survive long out of water and deteriorate quickly once dead. Live Bugs can be stored in a container, covered with a damp cloth, in the warmest part of the refrigerator (usually the crisper), for a few hours. If keeping any longer, chill them in the freezer to kill them quickly (see Killing below); wrap green or cooked Bugs or Bug meat in plastic wrap or place in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 2 days (from when they were alive) or freeze for up to 3 months below -18ºC.
The easiest and most humane way to kill any crustacean is to chill it in the freezer for 30-45 minutes until it becomes insensible (but not long enough to freeze it). This should be long enough to kill Bugs, which can then be refrigerated as above. See NSW Department of Primary Industries or RSPCA for more details.
Steam, poach, deep-fry, pan-fry, stir-fry, grill, or barbecue Bugs. Moreton Bay Bugs have a sweet rich flavour, stronger than Rock Lobsters but milder than Balmain Bugs, which have a more ‘fishy’ flavour. Undercook, rather than overcook, Bugs, as they will continue cooking in the residual heat; if overcooked the meat will be tough and leathery. Use the shell to flavour stocks, soups and sauces.
To boil an uncooked Bug, chill it well if it’s alive (see ‘Killing’ above), then place into a large pot of rapidly boiling water that has been well salted (½ cup table salt to 2.5 litres water), for 6-8 minutes depending on size, timed from when the water returns to the boil. Refresh in iced water.
To serve in shell: place the chilled or cooked Bug on its back and, using a sharp knife or Chinese cleaver, split the length of the shell from head to tail. As Bugs have thick shells, which can be difficult to cut in half, you can always ask your fishmonger to halve them for you. Remove the digestive tract (grey thread) running down the middle of the tail meat and use a teaspoon to clean out the head cavity; some people retain the yellowy-orange tomalley or ‘mustard’ (liver), to enrich sauce or mayonnaise.
To serve meat only: either split Bug lengthwise (as above) and lift out the 2 pieces of meat, or, to keep the meat in one piece, turn tail over and cut down either side of the underside of the tail shell using kitchen scissors, peel shell back and remove meat.
Do not recook cooked Bugs, serve cold in salads or with mayonnaise (flavoured with garlic or herbs) or other dipping sauce; they’re excellent split in half as part of a cold seafood platter, and the meat can be used as a garnish for soups, tossed through hot pasta or in other dishes where it’s only lightly reheated, such as omelettes. To barbecue, cut in half lengthwise and cook in the shell with garlic or herb butter drizzled over the cut surface. The firm raw flesh holds together well in soups, curries and casseroles and threaded on skewers for kebabs. Bugs can be used in almost any recipe calling for Lobsters, Rock Lobsters, Prawns or Freshwater Crayfish.
The Eyes Have It
Remember how to tell Balmain and Moreton Bay Bugs apart: Balmain is a narrow peninsula and Balmain Bugs’ eyes are narrow, located close together in the centre of their heads. Moreton Bay is a wide bay and Moreton Bay Bugs’ eyes are set broadly apart on either side of their shells. Slipper Lobsters’ eyes are in between, closer to the edges than the centre, but not on the actual edge.