A Walk Down Crab Lane

A recent Asian Crab recipe posted by FoodNetwork.com got me thinking about my long-standing love affair with crab.

Growing up in NY, my mom would take us in our red Plymouth station wagon into Chinatown, park with the windows down (imagine the er, aroma of the city streets on a roasting summer’s day) while she and my dad bustled down to the seafood markets south of Canal.  I didn’t know how good I had it.  I was hot and cranky, my legs sticking to the grey vinyl seats of our car.  When mom and dad returned, amongst the assortment of vegetation sticking out of white plastic bags with red calligraphic lettering, there would be a bag, sometimes two, lined with brown paper.  The bag would rustle in the trunk, all of its own accord.  Crab’s on.

We are Asian, specifically, Vietnamese.  This is not a fact I was always proud of growing up in a white neighborhood on Long Island; attending predominantly Irish, Italian, Polish Catholic private schools.  Sometimes there’d be someone else Asian, usually Philippino. The kids thought my last name was ridiculous, and given how hard it was for me to try and pronounce it correctly for them, I tended to agree.  Back in those days, I’d bring the traditional gio sandwich to lunch while my classmates chowed down on PB&J and deli meats that didn’t single them out as strange.

How I long for the days of my taken-for-granted youth: filled with Vietnamese cuisine.  Only then, it was just food.  What we ate at home.

Crab.  It’s not just an Asian thing, it’s definitely not just a Vietnamese thing, but oh the way my mom would prepare it.  Julia Child may have been fearless, but my mother was positively matter of fact.  We’d get home from Chinatown, bring the groceries in and the crabs would unceremoniously get dumped into the sink, awaiting execution.  I will say this, my mother was quick and spared them a prolonged death-by-boiling.  She’d pop off the tops of their shells, take a large and sharp knife and aim right between the eyes.  One quick stab to the heart.  It would be over.  (Don’t try this without gloves.  The better crabs are feistier, don’t bother with the ones missing limbs or barely moving around.  The fresher, the sweeter and tastier.)

After the crabs had been set to rest, my mom would go about cleaning them with a brush to dislodge any stray sand.  Then, she’d take off the gills.  I believe the secret to the deliciousness of my mother’s crabs was in the sauteeing rather than boiling.  She’d clean and chop scallions, garlic and possibly ginger.  She salted and peppered the crabs.  The scallions, garlic and ginger were sauteed in oil (though I suspect butter would not hurt this recipe) and then, the piece de resistance, adding whatever crab egg she’d scraped from the opened, cleaned crabs.  After the aroma would start to waft, fish sauce, which makes all things Vietnamese.  After the sauce has simmered a few minutes, you add the crabs, which she’d break into halves or quarters (depending on the type of crab).  Mix them into the sauce.  Turn the heat a bit lower and cover them to let the flavors settle in.

Crabs cook quickly, so check under the cover after a few minutes.  Once the shells have turned bright red, they’re most likely done.  If you want to be sure, open up a leg and check that the meat is no longer translucent.

The crabs themselves were so divine but the sauce, oh how I loved their sauce.  I would save it to eat over jasmine rice at the end.

If you’d like a variation (and possibly measurements/a more specific recipe) I found this Vietnamese-style Spicy Crab Recipe from Sunset Magazine’s test kitchen.  If you’re in San Francisco, Yummy Yummy in the Inner Sunset has three variations of Vietnamese crab (butter, red pepper and black bean) that are pretty good as well as reasonable for dungeness crab in the area.  Dragonfly, also in the Sunset serves a slightly higher-end version with garlic noodles.  And to round out San Francisco’s offering, Thanh Long in the Outer Sunset has what some say are the most delicious Vietnamese-style crabs in San Francisco.  I would say Dragonfly is just as good, but not nearly as pricey.  My favorite is having crabs at home, where you can eat them as messily as you like!