Summer read: Its history in the US is long and complicated. Its impact in Aotearoa was instant. Fragrant, delicious seafood boil is sparking new local businesses, online excitement and a dedicated following – especially among Māori and Pasifika.
First published August 13, 2022
“I don’t know y’all, this stuff is really good,” gushes American mukbang YouTuber Bloveslife as she dunks a comically mammoth king crab leg into a pool of red-tinged butter sauce. For 40 minutes, using her long, spangly, stiletto-shaped nails, the eating star, cracks, snaps, and slurps till just the crustacean’s carapace is left. It’s one of hundreds of videos of the YouTuber eating generous servings of seafood boil – most of which have tens of millions of views.
“Back in 2018 I found myself watching her videos before I went to work, before I went to sleep, and in between if I could,” says Crystal Paulo (Māori, Niuean, Tahitian, Pākehā) the owner of the Auckland-based business Crystal’s Seafood Boil, “I was instantly hooked”. It was the first time Paulo had encountered seafood boil and with nowhere to buy the dish locally, she set about learning how to make it herself. “I was like, there’s no way I can get a king crab leg, but I can definitely get prawns, I can definitely get corn and I can definitely get mussels,” she says.
After a year of experimenting, Paulo started selling seafood boils to pick up through Facebook in September 2019. “It just blew up,” she says. “I got 400 reactions and 400 comments in 24 hours, I couldn’t believe it”. Since she began, the dish that originated in the US has been gaining popularity in Aotearoa – with particular resonance among Māori and Pasifika communities. You see it reflected in the growing number of people selling the dish through social media, mostly in Auckland but dotted around the country, along with the crowds of local Facebook users that flock to their pages. These days, Paulo’s seafood boil trays have become literal fodder for local mukbang content creators.
Despite its growing global popularity, there’s surprisingly little specific documentation on the origins of seafood boil. There are technically four types of seafood boils that vary state to state, but the type gaining popularity here is mostly influenced by the Louisiana-style version of the dish. It was Cajun-Acadians who were deported from Acadia (a French colony spanning parts of the US and Canada) to the Southern state in the 18th century who likely developed the dish with influences borrowed from African, French and Spanish culinary traditions. Seafood boil in Louisiana refers to an outdoor social gathering centred around the dish made up most often of crawfish as well as other seafood steeped in a combination of beer, bay leaves, Old Bay seasoning, smoked paprika, cayenne pepper, black pepper, thyme, salt, lemons, garlic, and onions, and often served with a butter sauce spiked with garlic and spices.
Five months ago, Christchurch-based Brooklin Ormsby (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Te Rangi) started selling the dish with the help of his brother Awa through their Facebook page Awas Seafood Boils. Ormsby reckons the traction the dish has gained locally has a lot to do with its proliferation on mukbang videos and TikTok. The abundant portions slathered in copious sauce “just look so good on video and especially the way they eat it,” he says.
After searching fruitlessly for seafood boil in Christchurch to fill his own cravings, “I just made one for both of us one day,” he says. “I thought since there’s no one down here making it, I’ll just make our own.” Their foil platters filled with prawns, crab, sausages, mussels, whole eggs and the requisite Cajun-style butter sauce sold only on Saturdays were an instant success. “It was just non-stop orders and we sold out nearly every week,” Ormsby says.
The brothers are originally from Tauranga but shifted to Christchurch for work five years ago. “We’ve always been around seafood up in the North Island,” he says. “So we’re trying to bring something different, a little something from up North, down to the South Island.”
Ormsby works Monday to Friday in a construction and at a restaurant and spends Saturday making, selling and delivering their trays. With plenty of restaurant experience behind him, Ormsby says “I really, really wanted to do something around hospitality and run my own business.” For now, the plan is to continue selling takeaway-style meals, but in the future he’s keen to transform the idea into something more permanent.
Like Awas Seafood Boil, the majority of seafood boil businesses that have sprung up locally make their sales by way of social media – most often through Facebook or Instagram. Auckland-based business Manaia Seafood Boil started out selling their kai on Facebook during the level three lockdown last year.
Metita Iwasa (Sāmoan) who started the business with her husband Julian Baleli says “we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for the lockdown”. Despite the disruption to traditional hospitality businesses, lockdowns seemed to provide the perfect set of conditions for budding seafood boil producers like Manaia: people had little else to splurge on, were limited to takeaways and probably even more than usual, desiring something extravagant and novel.
After almost a year of operating as takeaway-only, last week they opened their first standalone restaurant that’s walking distance from where it all began: their home kitchen. The eatery, situated in a modern space in Auckland suburb Onehunga, has a cabinet filled with Sāmoan baking like panikeke, coconut buns and keke pua’a, and speakers blast exuberant siren jams and dancehall music – the perfect soundtrack to eat generous piles of seafood to.
Part of the appeal of seafood boil must certainly be the spectacle involved with eating it, and that persists at Manaia. While my friend and I sat with plastic bibs tied around our necks for the unavoidable sploshes from our meal, our $65 medium-sized order arrived in a clear bag at our table. As it was untied, the twelve prawns, twelve mussels, three crab legs, five potatoes, three boiled eggs, three corn cobs and six cut sausages tumbled onto the platter below. It took the two of us just under an hour to eat about three quarters of our order – not without attempting a few mukbang-style videos along the way.
The couple both have previous experience in hospitality, and had always dreamed of opening their own eatery, but Iwasa says, “we thought it was going to be a fish and chip shop or cafe, we never thought it was going to be seafood boil”. In the end, it was Iwasa’s family who convinced the pair to concentrate on seafood boil. “My family loves seafood, Polynesians love their seafood, fish, anything seafood, you name it, they love it,” she says.
Three years after starting, Paulo of Crystal’s Seafood Boil has turned what started out as a hobby inspired by YouTube videos into a full-time job. Because her food had garnered so much fanfare through lockdowns, Paulo wondered whether the success was just the result of a fickle food trend that would dry up as the restrictions lifted. But now she reckons the appeal of the overflowing seafood dish is enduring – especially among Māori and Pasifika communities. “The interest is still there, the sales are still there, and the customers are still enjoying that,” Paulo says. “That sort of helps us to understand that this is more than a fad or a phase.”
“For Māori and Pasifika our ancestors came from the ocean, we just have that tie,” she adds.
That ongoing desire for her kai has given her the confidence to start developing a bottled version of her sauce to sell. She’s still in the development process, but hopes to have it ready for market next year.
Traditionally, seafood boil is casual backyard fare shared among a big group. Even if it’s slightly removed from those origins in our local context, it’s still the type of shared food that invites a sense of community. Seafood boil is kai that’s tactile; it needs to be engaged with thoughtfully. You also need to bring an appetite. There’s no room to be on your phone, and your hands would be too greasy to swipe anyway.
“The heads are still on, the shells are still on, you’ve got to take your time to peel the prawns, crack open the crayfish, and then pull your mussel meat out of the shell,” says Paulo. “It’s a process and it’s a slow one – I think that helps bring people together.”