Serious Eats

Tiki Week: Crab Rangoon

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

It's luaus and pink drinks with umbrellas. It's leis and beach bums. It's all that fried "Polynesian"/Chinese/Japanese American food you love to hate. Welcome to Tiki Week. This week, we'll be featuring a favorite Tiki-bar appetizer every day of the week.

A couple weeks ago, I asked the folks over on my Facebook Page what their favorite Chinese restaurant appetizer is. I was expecting dumplings, spring rolls, perhaps hot and sour soup. What I got instead was a deluge of crab rangoon, with more than twice as many votes as any other dish.

The people have spoken, so I shall deliver.

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It took me a very long time to figure out the appeal of crab rangoon. I didn't really like seafood as a kid, so I never touched the things, then when I finally did start loving seafood, I was so snobby about it that I wouldn't eat anything that I hadn't actually seen pulled out of the ocean and gutted with my own eyes (living in New England will do that to you). Eat a Chinese-American appetizer made by deep frying not just canned crab, but artificial crab? Yikes, no thanks.

It wasn't until I realized that crab rangoon is in fact seafood designed for those who don't really like seafood that I learned to appreciate it for what it is. As Adam, our resident crab rangoon connoisseur put it, "It's just a big ol' excuse for crazy non-Chinese people to eat deep-fried cream cheese." Crisp, bubbly wonton wrappers with a molten center of oozy, tangy cream cheese lightly scented with scallions and a vague hint of crab. Who can argue with that?

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This of course, raises the question: Do you even need to use crab in there? And what about real crab versus krab, a.k.a surimi the red-dyed sticks of ground and formed fish that resemble crab-flavored string cheese? When I asked Adam to describe the filling of the crab rangoons he ate growing up, here's what he had to say: "MOSTLY cream cheese. With negligible, almost UNFINDABLE bits of (imitation) crab."

I fried up a few batches of rangoons, one made with real crab, one made with fake krab, and one with no crab at all to gauge the difference.

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Certainly, no crab was not the way to go. I mean, they were tasty and all, but it turns out that crab, even artificial crab, adds an essential flavor to the crispy puffs. A little salty, and a little briny. As far as real vs. fake, it's a toss-up. The real crab had a much more distinctly "fishy" flavor which might turn some people off. The krab is a lot less assertive: One of my Tiki party guests is a hardcore no-fish eater, but even he didn't mind the flavor of the fake stuff.

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The only other question is shape. Simple folded triangles are the easiest to form, but they have a tendency to puff up like a balloon and blow out as they fry, spewing hot crab into the oil and causing it to bubble, pop, and probably burn your arms (or worse, if you, like me, enjoy frying topless). You can also fold and twist them into little tortellini or bunch them up unto little purses. But the king of shapes, the crab rangoon ne plus ultra, is the four-pointed star. Not only does it bunch up all the filling into an easily burst-able sphere, it also maximizes surface area on the skin, giving you more crunch per rangoon.

Check out the slideshow for step-by-step photos, and the recipe for exact measurements.

More from Tiki Week

Shrimp Toast »
Beef Teriyaki Skewers »
Chinese-style Spareribs »
Coconut Shrimp »

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