Serious Eats: Recipes

Seriously Asian: Crab Two Ways

"When the cleaver enters the crab, its legs will flail wildly—fear not and press onwards."

[Photographs: Chichi Wang]

The crabs are in full force at Asian markets. Bins of blue claws rest beneath burlap covers, while the water tanks hold the larger, sweeter Dungeness crabs. The blue claws that I'm used to crabbing for on the southern coast of Long Island are usually about five inches from point to point—compare that to the gargantuan Dungeness crabs that typically measure seven to eight inches in length, not even counting their fat and meaty legs.

I'm generally inclined to steam my Dungeness crabs, while blue claws benefit from a crab boil in Zatarain's or a healthy dosage of Old Bay, Dungeness are nearly perfect on their own. With nothing more than a little rice vinegar on the side, a steamed Dungeness crab is my idea of healthful eating.

That being said, Asians are good at taking apart and preparing Dungeness so as to retain the crab's natural goodness. Across Vietnamese, Thai, and Chinese recipes, ginger, green onion, fish sauce, and oyster sauce are typical flavorings for a crab stir-fry. Such seasonings are added with a restrained hand. The combination of fish sauce and oyster sauce is a fine balance of sweet and savory: both sauces derive from oceanic creatures, and there's a hint of oyster and a hint of umami-like, anchovy intensity in the dish.

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The crabs must be hacked into manageable sections while they are still alive—do so with a heavy cleaver and a steadfast heart. With the crab on its back (also called the carapace), tear off the abdomen (the narrow piece of armor that folds under from the rear end of the crab) then pierce your cleaver into the ravine in the middle of the shell and aggressively push down on the hard carapace. When the cleaver enters the crab, its legs will flail wildly—fear not and press onwards.

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A rush of steely blue liquid will escape from the shells—this is the crab's blood, colored so due to its respiratory build. Inside, the mustard-toned innards are the digestive parts, a buttery and creamy delicacy. Reserve the yellow innards for your sauces or steam them gently along with the crab.

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Crab being passed through the oil, then stir-fried.

A crab stir-fry employs one of the fundamental techniques of wok cookery: once broken down, the pieces of crab must be passed through the oil before stir-frying. Passing the crab through the oil quickly cooks the meat, ensuring that when the pieces are stir-fried, their juices won't seep out and cause the entire dish to steam rather than sear. Stir-fried with garlic, ginger, and green onion, the coating that builds on the shell of the crab legs is delectable albeit messy to eat.

For a simpler approach, steam a few sections of crab atop a bundle of rice or cellophane noodles. During steaming, the noodles absorb the savory juices that seep from the meat and shell, along with the innards of the crab.

Like paella, the seafood components flavor the staple or grain, which in turn becomes the true highlight of the dish. My favorite noodles to cook with crab are the freshly-made sheets of steamed rice noodles, commonly found at Cantonese markets and dim sum meals.

The freshest rice noodles will completely absorb the juices of the Dungeness as well as the fragrance of ginger and green onion, yet still retain a resilient and supple texture. By reserving just a few sections of a fresh Dungeness intended for stir-frying, the dish can be made with frugal amounts of crab, relying on the liquids and innards for flavor.

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