Whole Crabs in Cuisine
Eating crabs can be messy, liberating, expensive, yummy and rewarding. Gather a group of mates and enjoy the experience together. Usually this sensation of best eating crabs is to use the washed hands, wear thongs and be practical about a humid, tropical climate. The compulsory bowl of lemon flavoured water does wonders in refreshing and cleansing the hands. Even more useful is the ability to nudge the flesh out from the shell of the cooked crab.
The Chinese put all sorts of meaning into anything and the ability to indulge in crabs means abundance. They are also seen as honouring people they respect when invited to join in such a dinner, usually steamed or stir fried with ginger, chillies and runny egg of chickens. Eating cooked whole crabs is a communal or family thing, and often part of an eight course banquet to mark a special occasion, reunion or celebration.
An initial issue for diners is how do you extract the delicious and flavourful meat inside the crab shells, especially with the skinny crab legs? Aunties and uncles observe how determined, patient, frugal and diligent youngsters are in how they extract crab meat within the shell. The general answer is to dig in with your hands and wash them later with the provided lemon infused wash water. Don't worry about the chopsticks or Victorian table manners - ask any Singaporean!
Having the metal spanners or so called crab crackers to help break crab shell, especially of its limbs, can be useful but veteran diners do not require that. The experts in crab cuisine also sing praises of the crab egg roe - they calculate the tides and sightings of the moon size before they even consider going out to buy crabs. Some claim that female crabs are much sweeter in taste and they can be identified by a U shaped back on their shell (the males have a V). When choosing crabs from the markets, apply common sense - that the crabs do not smell fishy, have no dark markings and have a feel fro them if possible.
The chef's preparation of whole crabs is an art and a skill. The live crabs brought home in a card board box are placed in extreme ice cold water buckets fro them to "go to a gentle sleep". After this, be mindful that over washing under tap of the whole crabs can cause them to lose flavour and it is best to pat dry them with paper when preparing them.
The crabs have their shells hammered to make them more pliable for cooking, but not to the extent of being smashed. Sections of the whole crab are then segmented. The claws are singled out for special attention, cracked more to allow better permeation from the cooking.
The main focus is on the top shell of the whole crab. Once you pull this top or main segment out, you find a bit of a messy filling from the guts, gills and other bits of the inner body. All of these can be bitter in taste or unsightly. You may just want to retain the crab roe and place them aside.
When dealing with the two sides of the crab left after separating the top shell, do look for the natural slope of the sides for more effective cutting - do not place your knife against the gradient and flow of the side body.
Steamed or stir fried, these crab segments then require preparation of sauces or a gravy to enhance their delicate flavours. It may not be emphasised, but what is also quintessential to me is the flavour, quality and texture of the accompanying gravy or sauce. This can be eaten by sliders of toast bread. Western culinary methods tend to roast or grill them.
Eating crabs to East Asians is seen as having a cooling effect for the human body in the thinking of Yin snd Yang. - this is why they are served with body warming ingredients like ginger and Shaoxing yellow wine. Cantonese cuisine has a specific dish with crab meat still on the shell that I adore - that cooked in a hot pot with vermicelli and flavoured with XO sauce.
Or an excellent idea is crabs with spices in a curry.
Crab curry preparation follows a recipe that is mostly not different from others, but has tomatoes, tamarind juice, coriander, cumin, tumeric and garlic that match with the flavours of the harvest from the ocean. The subsequent question is then do we need to serve steamed rice or the ubiquitous Roti with such a crab dish? I would say just eat the crab curry by itself or with slices of toast bread for the best effect.
Crab meat is utilised to fill up Shanghai dumplings, or as an ingredient in corn soups. or an important ingredient in making Rissoles and is often a popular but more expensive ingredient when serving Linguine.
Singaporean chili crab comes to mind for many in east Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the western Pacific. This iconic dish from the island nation is actually a fusion of both Chinese and Indian culinary styles as you can observe the use of light soy sauce, white vinegar and cornflour starch (which the Indians hardly use) on one hand, whilst other important ingredients to assemble before cooking are tomato puree, chopped up small red chillies and tomato paste (which Chinese culinary hardly uses, except in Sichuan cooking). This dish was created in south-east Asia, so the Belachan shrimp paste adds to the zest for this.
Freshness is everything with crabs, whether for the Cantonese, Sri Lankan, Shanghainese or Mediterranean societies. That is why they were still alive in their water tanks half an hour before they are served as cooked. This may not go down well with some - this is perfectly understandable - and at times it is better not to view the live crabs before they are cooked. However this can be the practice, like in Chinese restaurants, to try reassure the diners of the freshness of the sea food used.
Western society tends to make something else from the crab meat - whether they are in savoury crab cakes or in crab sauce then used to accompany other food. To me, nothing beats the splendour, uniqueness and joy of biting into a mean fresh sliver of crab meat that echoes the smells of the sea and the pinnacle of shell food.
In societies where garbage collection is not carried out every day, but once a week, disposing the crab shells can pose a potential issue in cleanliness and public hygiene. Urban populations do not have the options of disposing the shells as organic waste for manure and the offal has to be securely packaged up to have minimum smell and spillage. This is similar to throwing off durian shells after savouring the custard like fruit.
Can one eat both durian fruit and crab meat at the same time? Both items cost more than a bit at the markets or in restaurants. Both are seen as food rich in calories and contributing to high cholesterol levels (well, this may not be so important after all after years of us being advised in medical and mainstream media). Both are delicious (okay, not to some people I know and I respect their preferences). I reckon what cannot be consumed in the same eating session is alcohol - never drink that whilst enjoying eating crabs and durians.