Why It Works
- Toasting whole spices and aromatics in oil over low heat helps draw out fat-soluble flavor compounds and triggers complex reactions that improve their aroma.
- We cook the spiced tomato mixture until the fat breaks out into droplets on the surface. This is an indication that the moisture content has reduced sufficiently to intensify flavors.
In India, fish markets are an assault on the senses. Brightly dressed fisherwomen, baskets laden with all sorts of fins and shells popping out. Cats—lots and lots of them, between your feet, under tables, curled dangerously close to fish chopping boards. It's all very vibrant and chaotic, in a good way. At one end of the market is the crab monger. In bucket-shaped cane baskets, you will see live crabs, trying their best to escape the gaze of hungry customers. The fisherwomen declaw the crabs on the spot once the bargaining is done, and then it's off to the kitchen.
Whole crab is one of the most time-consuming foods to eat. It's also one of the most rewarding, with its pockets of sweet, tender meat. This crab masala combines a spicy tomato-based masala sauce with whole Dungeness or Jonah crabs. I've developed it from a bit of this and that and it's become quite a favorite.
If you like heat, this is a wonderful medley of hot and fragrant, with the fried and ground spices giving the dish a robust base along with onions, garlic, and ginger (you can reduce or remove the chile if your pain threshold is low).
The sauce follows some basic masala procedures: I toast whole spices and aromatics in oil in a saucepan to improve their aroma and add complexity before grinding them all together and simmering them with a tomato-based sauce. The crab gets added to the sauce and steamed under a lid until just cooked through. I finish it with freshly chopped cilantro leaves.
Once you've mastered this sauce, you'll be able to use it for any number of seafood-inspired masala dishes. Try it with shrimp or chunks of tender white fish, for instance.
You could also try this as a seafood side to aromatic Indian shrimp pilaf or scoop it up with bhakri, an Indian rice bread.
The dish itself is simple to make. The hard part is keeping your hands clean as you eat it. I recommend plenty of napkins.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup), divided
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 whole small dried red chile, such as Thai bird or chile de árbol
5 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1-inch piece of ginger, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
3 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 cup tomato purée
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 medium Dungeness or Jonah crabs, cleaned and cut into half
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Cooked rice or flatbread for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat until shimmering. Add 1 tablespoon chopped onion, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, dried chile, peppercorns, cloves, ginger, and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Turn off heat and add fennel seeds. Stir to mix through. Immediately transfer to the bowl of a blender or mortar and pestle and blend or pound until a fine paste is formed, scraping down sides as necessary.
Wipe out saucepan with a paper towel and add remaining oil. Heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add remaining onion. Cook, stirring, until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Add tomato purée, bring to a simmer, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add turmeric powder and the ground spice paste. Stir well to combine and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil separates and starts surfacing. Add a few drops of water if the paste tends to stick or get too dry.
Add crab and salt. Spoon some of the sauce over crab to coat. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove lid, stir, and continue to cook for 10 minutes, spooning sauce over crabs occasionally. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve immediately with rice or bread.
Spice grinder or mortar and pestle, heavy-bottomed saucepan
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 24g||30%|
|Saturated Fat 2g||10%|
|Total Carbohydrate 24g||9%|
|Dietary Fiber 6g||20%|
|Total Sugars 9g|
|Vitamin C 25mg||124%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|