Cracking crab with your teeth is for the young.
Until recently, it was a pleasure I relished all of my life. For many years, even in restaurants serving cracked crab, I relied on my teeth to get to the meat — sucking and slurping with gusto.
Neighboring diners would take notice with frowns or smiles. It can be a bit messy, but it didn’t matter because licking my fingers and savoring the lingering sweet sea flavors were worth it.
Growing up in Hawaii, the crab I saw the most was one we didn’t eat — the tiny sand crabs that flirted with the tides, scampering away as we chased them across the white sand of Kailua Beach, determined to escape into the bubbling water of incoming breakers or ducking into their small, deep holes.
Samoan crab is known as mud crab in much of Southeast Asia.
What we did eat was white crab, caught by fisherman friends in deeper offshore waters. We ate them raw, cleaned and dipped in bird’s eye chili water and red alae sea salt. Good with poi.
There was also the 7-11 crab, which had either seven or 11 distinctive spots on its hard shell, and the small, especially well-camouflaged ghost crab, which we heard about but even the most experienced diver never saw.
The prized catch was Samoan crab, known as mud crab throughout most of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. They thrive in warm, brackish, muddy waters, particularly in mangroves. They’re not easy to find; I’ve caught only one in all my life.
As a teenager, we’d go torch fishing for tako (octopus) in Kaneohe Bay. One night, I saw a Samoan crab walking in the shallow, murky water. Using my left hand I quickly scooped it up, while holding a Hawaiian sling poised to strike with my right. It was pure luck.
That was the first time I ate mud crab, but not the last. Despite its unappealing name and unattractive look, it is sweet and delectable.
Years later, I discovered the crab again in the live fish eateries of Singapore, where it’s traditionally used for Singapore Chili Crab, a specialty of the tiny island-nation. The crab is stir-fried with fragrant Southeast Asian spices and spicy-sweet tomato sauce thickened with whipped eggs. Beautifully flavored with just enough seasoning to enhance its sweet meat flavors, it’s astonishingly delicious.
One day shortly after moving to the Bellingham, a friend who lived in Chuckanut Village took me down to the shallow bay to go crabbing, local village-style. Crabbing, in my mind, entailed setting circular crab traps in the ocean with aku (skipjack tuna) heads for bait, and returning to fetch the nets later.
But this was surprisingly different. We waded in chilly, thigh-high water and raked up nearly a dozen Dungeness crab in less than an hour. When I wrote home about it, everyone thought it was just another one of my big fish stories.
Soon after, I made Singapore Chili Crab Northwest style, with Dungeness crab. It was so good it became one of my signature dishes at my Community Food Co-op cooking classes and my private chef dinners.
For a long time I thought the dish was unknown in the West, and so was greatly and happily surprised when I recently came across a CNN listing of the world’s 50 best foods, and there it was: Singapore Chili Crab, at number 29. I also discovered there is a Singapore Chili Crab festival in New York City. For sure, it’s no ghost crab.
Singapore Chili Crab
1 whole live Dungeness crab
3 to 4 tbsp. peanut oil
Tomato chili sauce:
2 to 3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 to 2 tablespoons soy or fish sauce
2 to 3 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon Thai chili sauce
1 to 2 teaspoons palm or brown sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons tamarind water/paste
1 to 2 teaspoons hot chili paste- sambal
2 tablespoons sherry/white wine
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, julienned
4 to 5 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 to 2 cups green onions, one-inch slivers
1 egg, whipped
sprigs of cilantro for garnish
Make sauce, prep and set aside other ingredients.
Remove the crab’s shell and clean its body with cold water. Break off legs, leaving some of the body attached. Carefully crack the legs and claws with a nut cracker/kitchen scissors and set aside.
Heat a large wok or heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, add oil. When hot, stir in the ginger, garlic and crab.
Stir-fry for a minute with a touch of hot water before stirring in the tomato chili sauce, cook for another 2 to 3 minutes, cover with a lid, cook for a minute, then stir in oyster sauce and green onions.
Increase heat to high; drizzle in the egg and stir for another minute. Adjust thickness of sauce with hot water. Taste and, if desired, add more spices, vinegar or soy.
Garnish with cilantro.