From the flaky meat of the Dungeness to the sweet and tender meat of the king crab, getting past these crustaceans’ tough exteriors is well worth it.

In life, they say, success comes through hard work. In food, we find that the same philosophy applies. This is especially true when enjoying la crème de la crème of crab; you don’t just get to bite into a mouthful of plump, steamed white meat – you have to earn it. But if you keep at it, cracking and cutting through those tough and, at times, spiky shells, the reward promises to be oh so sweet.

Fresh crab is adored in both casual and fine-dining settings, whether grilled seaside at a barbecue or featured on the menus of high-end sushi restaurants and steak houses. Like the finest of wines, there are many crab varieties to choose from, each one with its own distinct characteristics and flavors.

To help you choose which type is best suited to your taste buds, as well as where to find it, we’ve got your Crab 101 right here:

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Those familiar with crab savor the sweet meat of Chesapeake blue crabs, which are often used in crab cakes (photo by Will Parson / courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program).

DUNGENESS DELIGHT
Here in Hawai’i, Dungeness crab is undoubtedly one of the most popular types of seafood enjoyed across the state. Sourced from a long stretch of the Pacific Ocean, especially the waters of the Pacific North West, these crabs are big and beefy, meaning they pack a lot of meat. And unlike many crab varieties that are only harvested for their legs and claws, the Dungeness houses bundles of deliciously soft, flaky crabmeat under its main-body shell as well.

In some parts of the world, including Japan, the crab’s brain and inner juices are considered to be a delicacy for their briny yet sweet flavors. They are often referred to as the “butter” of the crab for their custard-like texture reminiscent of melted butter. But for those who prefer to stick with more familiar chunks of white meat, Dungeness crab has a delicate flavor that works well steamed, cracked and seasoned, or combined with a range of flavors and sauces in more elaborate preparations.

INTO THE BLUE
Just as their vibrant sky-blue hue in the wild makes them unique from their crustacean counterparts, blue crab stands out for its luxurious meat, which is often touted as the sweetest available by crab enthusiasts. Their scientific name Callinectes sapidus translates from Greek and Latin to mean “beautiful savory swimmer,” and that’s exactly what these ocean treasures are to seafood-lovers everywhere, especially those in the Atlantic regions where blue crabs dwell – think Chesapeake Bay.

It’s commonly known that this variety is the crab of choice for making the most scrumptious crab cakes, but what many don’t realize is that the blue bombshell also is the source of soft shell crabs. That is to say, those delightful little crabs with the soft, edible shells that pack a wonderful crunch – especially when tempura-battered or deep fried in a sandwich – are actually blue crabs that have molted. From spring to early summer, you can catch them for a brief period when they are forming a new shell and have just the right palatable texture and natural hint of saltiness.

LET IT SNOW
Hands down, one of the best ways to enjoy crab is to crack open tender, steamed meat from the legs and claws, which need no accompaniment other than an accentuating dip of drawn butter. Seafood buffets are often the easiest way to dive into this type of crab feast, and one of the stars of those buffets is snow crab. Named for its snow-white meat, these crustaceans offer plenty of meat to enjoy without all that much effort, seeing as their clusters of long-as-can-be legs are full of rich, juicy meat, yet their shells are much easier to crack into than the average crab. Hailing from the northern waters of both the Pacific and Atlantic, snow crabs are generally enjoyed in abundance – a good thing for crab lovers everywhere.

FIT FOR A KING
In the world of crab indulgences, the king variety truly rules over them all. The best-known type of king crab is found in Alaska, where fishermen risk their lives each fall in what has been called the most dangerous job in the world to secure hoards of these massive creatures to supply the high consumer demand year-round.

Other types of king crab, including the southern Santolla, are highly coveted as well, and as a whole the species reigns supreme as much for its size as its popularity – the average king harvested weights about 6 to 10 pounds, though they can grow even larger.

Like the snow crab, it’s common to revel in king crab via its legs and claws, especially when featured in high-end buffet spreads. Though the spiky, large-and-in-charge leg shells can be intimidating in appearance, they reveal the exact opposite: incredibly succulent, sweet and supple meat. You’ll need some serious crab-cracking utensils to help you get to that prized meat, but once you do, just lather with warm butter and enjoy to your tummy’s content.

ENJOYING CRAB OUT ON THE TOWN
Amid O’ahu’s melting pot of cuisines, crab splendor finds its way into every style of restaurant. To find the best of the best, though, it’s worth turning to the upscale hotels, where bountiful buffets serve droves of crab legs prime for the picking. The newly renovated 100 Sails restaurant, formerly known as Prince Court, at Hawaii Prince Hotel is home to a bodacious buffet of elegant island-style flavors. One of the staples on this spread is crab legs, and the selection is switched up throughout the year based on what’s in season. It’s not uncommon to see snow crab on the buffet line, not to mention guest appearances by Dungeness, Santolla king or other varieties.

For the ultimate mix of relaxation and feasting, head to Hoku’s Sunday Brunch at Th e Kahala Hotel & Resort (kahalaresort.com), where guests dine on a refined assortment of global flavors in a secluded Oceanside setting. One of the stand-outs from the brunch menu is Butter Poached Alaskan King Crab Legs, prepared in a court bouillon seasoned with complementary flavors that underline the exceptional crabmeat rather than overpower it: lemon, white wine, garlic, shallots and a green sprinkling of Italian parsley.

If you’re intrigued by some of the most gourmet crab dishes in the restaurant scene, set your sights on DK Restaurants’ Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar (sanseihawaii.com). Th ere, DK’s Crab Ramen with Asian Truffle Broth is an award-winning conglomeration of savory Japanese-style wafu-dashi broth enriched with truffle butter and soft strands of king crab. Fresh Th ai basil, green onion, cilantro and locally sourced jalapeno further vivify the truly one-of-a-kind noodle soup.

It’s not uncommon to find tall towers of chilled seafood crowned with crab claws at steak houses around the island, but at Ruth’s Chris (ruthschris.com), you’ll also find a number of crab-centric creations. Sizzling Blue Crab Cakes, for one, presents jumbo lump crabmeat – a premium grade of crabmeat from the meatiest part of the animal – served with sputtering-hot lemon butter. There’s also a Crab Stack appetizer from Ruth’s Chris, pairing big hunks of blue crabmeat with cucumber, avocado and a tropical twist of mango. The dish features colossal lump crabmeat, which, similarly to jumbo lump, is valued for its impressive size and superlative taste.

MAKE IT AT HOME
You don’t have to be an adventurous home chef to spice up your cooking routine with grilled or steamed crab at home. Whether heading to your neighborhood supermarket or local seafood haven Tamashiro Market (tamashiromarket.com), keep in mind that size doesn’t always equate to quality when choosing the right crab. Pay attention to details like weight and brightness to pick the meatiest, freshest options, and when in doubt, ask a staff member.

There also are a handful of boutique seafood markets on island, such as Nico’s Pier 38 (nicospier38.com). Not only a beloved restaurant, Nico’s offers a fresh fish market that has been known to carry an assortment of snow crab, depending on availability. There’s also an impressive live-seafood selection at Paradise Seafood Market & Restaurant (hawaiiparadiseseafood.com), where crabs – often Dungeness, among others – are kept in peak condition. They’re housed in technologically advanced tanks that boast crystal-clear water with monitored temperature, salt and ammonia levels. And at Paradise, the employees steam the crab for you on-site for added convenience.

Regardless of where you go, it’s best to call ahead to see which types of crab are available and if a particular variety can be ordered for you.

By ALI RESICH

Photos Courtesy: David Sadvari, Instagram: Davidsadvari