Simmer a Second Life Out of Crawfish

A Mississippi chef’s secrets to crawfish leftovers, plus a recipe for snapper with crawfish curry

Photo: Shutterstock

photo: Courtesy of Austin Sumrall
Chef Austin Sumrall.

Chef Austin Sumrall, co-owner with his wife, Tresse, of Biloxi, Mississippi’s White Pillars Restaurant and Lounge, hails the humble mudbug boil as the pinnacle of parties. “Around here, we do boils for any special occasion in spring, baby showers, you name it,” he says. Growing up, his family celebrated his late-March birthday with crawfish boils. Today, he uses spent crawfish heads to keep the celebration going.

For Sumrall, a boil’s lulls between eating, with their chatting and beer drinking, are as satisfying as the food. Sometimes, they’re revelatory. During one such break, with bellies full of crawfish meat (and beer) and a trash can full of discarded heads, Sumrall wondered: “How could I reuse those?” Inspiration from a local culinary fusion clawed its way through the spice-scented steam. “We have a strong Vietnamese culture on the Mississippi coast and into Louisiana, and Viet-Cajun is its own food genre, so I thought, ‘Curry sauce!’”

photo: Courtesy of Austin Sumrall

Now, when Sumrall does a boil, he reserves the heads to steep with aromatics like lemongrass and coriander in coconut milk, which is pureed before it’s pushed through a fine-mesh sieve to remove all bits of shell. In the resulting sauce, the slightly sweet milk balances out the subtle background heat from the boil liquid.

His red snapper dish swimming in the curry sauce is popular enough to make repeat appearances on White Pillars’s ever-changing menu each spring. While it has a lengthy ingredient list, the method is straightforward.

For a simpler application, he recommends infusing crawfish heads in heavy cream and using that in a classic bisque recipe. Simmering heads with veggies and herbs for stock is another option, but in Sumrall’s opinion, the crawfish flavor gets almost too strong. He uses garlic, citrus, and herbs to jazz up his boils, but your favorite boil blend will work fine. He also adds cayenne but offers a warning. “I don’t want to break a sweat; that level of heat will dominate whatever else you do with the heads.”

photo: Courtesy of Austin Sumrall
Sumrall’s snapper with crawfish curry.

If you want to cook with crawfish heads post-boil, just pop them in the freezer. “They freeze for up to two weeks and are so intensely flavored, you don’t lose anything,” Sumrall says. The fridge is not as forgiving. “Don’t go more than two days; crawfish get funky quick.” And heed this key tip: “If you’re going to re-use the heads, rinse your crawfish really well before the boil; you want to get all the gunk off.”


  • Pan Seared Snapper with Crawfish Curry

    • 2 cups (dry) black rice

    • 8 pieces of snapper, cut by your butcher to 6 to 8 oz. each

  • Spice Mix

    • 2 tbsp. coriander

    • 1 tsp. mustard seeds

    • 1 tbsp. rice

    • 2 tsp. cumin seeds

    • 1 tsp. fennel seeds

    • 2 dried arbol chiles (can sub 1 tsp. red pepper flakes)

    • 2 fresh curry leaves (can sub fresh bay leaves)

  • Curry Sauce

    • 2 garlic cloves, chopped

    • 1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated

    • ¼ cup butter

    • 8 cups reserved crawfish heads

    • 4 sprigs lemon grass

    • 4 bay leaves

    • ½ cup tomato paste

    • 8 cups coconut milk

    • ½ cup cilantro (leaves and stems)

    • spice mix to taste (can use all if you want a strong curry)

  • Chutney

    • 2 cups cilantro leaves

    • 1 cup mint leaves

    • ½ cup tamarind, seeds removed

    • 4 tbsp. brown sugar

    • 1 tbsp. lime juice

    • 1 jalapeño, seeds and stem removed

  • Cilantro Vinaigrette

    • 1 cup cilantro

    • ½ jalapeño

    • juice of 8 limes

    • ½ cup brown sugar

    • ½ cup fish sauce

  • Garnish

    • ½ cup cilantro leaves

    • 1 cup snow peas, julienned

    • 1 cup red bell pepper, julienned

    • ¼ cup crawfish tails, optional

    • vinaigrette to taste

    • salt and pepper to taste


  1. Toast all ingredients of spice mix until lightly smoky. Cool. Grind in spice grinder or blender and reserve.

  2. Chop garlic and grate ginger into large stock pot. Heat butter and sweat garlic and ginger until translucent.

  3. Add remaining ingredients of curry sauce and simmer for 30 minutes.

  4. Working in batches, purée sauce (including heads) with a blender. Strain through fine sieve into another pot and reserve.

  5. Cook black rice according to package.

  6. Combine chutney ingredients in blender, blend, and reserve.

  7. Combine cilantro vinaigrette ingredients in blender, blend, and reserve.

  8. Sear snapper in a hot cast iron skillet, making sure to make a nice crust with the skin. Finish with butter in the oven.

  9. Serve by spooning curry onto a plate. Mix some rice with the chutney and place on top of the curry. Place the fish on top of the rice. Toss the cilantro, snow peas, and bell pepper lightly with the vinaigrette and place on the very top.