Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chesapeake Hard Crabs Fried Up Spicy Hot

Fried Chilli Crabs: I've been doing this for three decades. The local food scene has changed during that time, enough perhaps, for a preparation like this to find its place in the Baltimore dining scene within a couple of years. Chilli crabs have long been extremely popular in Singapore and Malaysia. The Vietnamese favor a slightly milder version of fried crab, which is on the menu at some Vietnamese restaurants and not unlike the fried crab quarters one sometimes finds at local suburban Asian cafeterias. What's pictured above is entirely different and pleases my tastebuds even more than our Maryland steamed crabs.

In Singapore and Malaysia, of course, the species of crab used is obviously different than our Atlantic blue crab. The meat, however, tastes much the same. Where do you think that more than 50 per cent of the crab meat consumed in Maryland comes from anyway? It's what Phillips Food, which is headquartered here in Baltimore, imports enough of from Indonesia to supply approximately 80 per cent of the US market.

My original recipe was from Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook, which was published in 1976. The Essential Asian Cookbook, published in 1999 by Whitecap Books includes slightly different version. Recipes for chilli crabs vary, just as they do for "Maryland Steamed Crabs." With steamed crabs, the differences relate mostly to seafood seasoning; with fried chilli crabs, it's chilli sauce.

For perspective let me share a bit of personal history. Thirty years ago, I was a home improvement broker who happened to be an adventurous eater and home cook. At that time of my life, unless otherwise specified, "chilli sauce" could just as well be Heinz Chili Sauce when referred to in a cookbook as "chilli" sauce, especially when a recipe for shrimp on the same page went farther to specify"Chinese chilli sauce." As a Baltimore native of that era, I gave Heinz Chili Sauce the nod. Surprisingly it worked great, however different the American mainstream Heinz product might have been from what Ms. Solomon probably intended. For the version pictured above, I used Yeo's Sweet Chilli Sauce from Malaysia, that was purchased at the Thai-Philippine market on Gorsuch Avenue in Waverly. That's because "sweet chilli sauce" was what the later Essential Asian Cookbook called for. It worked fine, but even so, next time, now more curious than ever, I'll be trying the Heinz again for perspective.

Here's the recipe:


2 live jumbo Maryland hard crabs

1/2 cup peanut oil

2 teaspoons freshly grated fresh ginger

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3 fresh red chilli's, seeded and chopped

1/4 cup plain tomato sauce

1/4 cup chilli sauce---read about this above

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 teaspoon salt

white rice

Wash crabs well, scrubbing away any mossy patches on the shell. Remove hard top shell, stomach bag and fibrous tissue, but reserve any fat or "mustard." With a cleaver, chop crab into 4 or 6 pieces. Heat a large wok or frying pan. Add oil and when the oil is very hot, fry the crab pieces until they change colour, turning them so they cook on all sides. As they begin to change colour, add any reserved fat or "mustard." Once colour has changed, remove to a plate. Turn heat to low and fry the ginger, garlic, and red chillies, stirring constantly, until they are cooked but not brown. Add the sauces, sugar, soy sauce, and salt, bring to a boil, and then return crabs to the wok or frying pan and allow to simmer in the sauce for 3 minutes, adding very little water if sauce reduces too much. Serve with white rice.

With credit for original inspiration to The Complete Asian Cookbook, by Charmaine Solomon, copyright 1976 Paul Hamlyn Pty. Ltd., published by McGraw Hill.