Thursday, January 31, 2013

Dungeness crab done up Hong Kong style

Some of the most wonderful things about living in Taiwan and visiting Hong Kong were the endless opportunities to revel in the local seafood. The cuisines of both places are dominated by saltwater fish and crustaceans, and I rarely passed up the chance to eat myself into a coma.

I became mesmerized by the many ways that Chinese cooks turned crab into something remarkable. Before moving to Asia, I grew up near San Francisco, and as a result, my idea of crab were those steamed, cold Dungeness behemoths that always tasted sweetly of the sea. Needing little adornment (although restaurants seemed bound by law to offer wedges of lemon alongside bowls of mayo or tartar sauce, melted butter, and cocktail sauce), this was the food of the gods as far as I was concerned, and all I needed as a teenager was a basket of the local sourdough bread and a pile of napkins to complete my happiness.

Ginger, shallots, dried shrimp
But the Chinese way with crabs was completely different. First off, the crabs were smaller and had thinner shells. This meant (second point:) that they were usually whacked apart with cleavers and then stir-fried with seasonings. And as I tucked into, say, the luscious Taiwanese version that was draped with sliced fried onions and omelet blankets, I had to concede that they were on to something there.

In Hong Kong, though, crabs are dealt with completely differently. Oftentimes the crab is served more or less whole so that it stares at you from a lake of silky, savory custard, or tiny crabs are deep-fried in a batter, their paper-like shells more like those of fried shrimp than anything else. Others were reminiscent of the genius of cooks from the Pearl River Delta, with shards of shelled crab nestled in soft pillows made from milk.

One of my favorites, though, has to be this truly inspired dish. This is all about the flavor of crab, and the only things that are added are aromatics that will highlight the sweetness of the meat and the silky strands of cellophane noodles that suck up every drop of juice. In fact, the only difficult thing about making this dish is ensuring that the cellophane noodles are prepared properly (follow the instructions to the letter and you will be more than halfway home), because these are notorious for dissolving into gummy clumps if not proffered sufficient respect.

Taiwanese fensi soaking
In this recipe, I've wandered slightly from the traditional recipe by shelling half of the crabmeat. What this does is allow more of the crab flavor to infiltrate the noodles, and I have to tell you, the noodles are The Best Part of this dish.

Since it is now winter and I am still not too far from San Francisco, I've used the best local crabs there ever will be: my beloved Dungeness. And because these are only sold already cooked, I've made allowances for that in this recipe. However, if you are lucky enough to have your own local crabs available still live and kicking, I have included instructions on how to use those, too.

Savory crab and cellophane noodles
Pángxiè fěnsī bào 螃蟹粉絲煲 
Hong Kong, Guangdong
Serves 2 to 6  (either as a main dish or as one of many)

4 bundles cellophane noodles (aka mung noodles or fensi)
Warm filtered water
2 tablespoons whole dried shrimp
2 pounds cooked Dungeness crab legs (the legs of 2 crabs, or just use 1 whole crab)
10 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil, divided
2 large shallots, trimmed and thinly sliced (about ½ cup)
6 thin slices fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped (about ¼ cup)
2 green onions, white and green parts kept separate, trimmed and finely chopped
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons regular soy sauce
2 teaspoons sweet soy sauce (tián jiàngyóu, or 2 teaspoons soy sauce with a bit of sugar to taste)
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
Freshly ground black pepper

1. First, soak the cellophane noodles in warm water for 10 minutes. Then rinse them in a colander under cold tap water to immediately stop the noodles from softening any further. Shake all of the water off the noodles and them dump them onto a clean tea towel. Lightly pat the noodles all over to get rid of the rest of the moisture and let them sit uncovered while you prepare the other ingredients. (This step is the most important because it ensures that the noodles will have the right texture.)
Now supple & translucent

2. Rinse the dried shrimp well, cover them with hot tap water, and let them soak until soft. Then, drain the shrimp and chop them finely.

3. If you are using only crab legs, separate the large lower (and middle, if needed) sections from the rest of the legs so that the pieces are easy to stir-fry. Keep the meatier sections whole and work over a bowl while you remove the meat from the scrawnier pieces, discarding their shells (see Tips). You should end up with about half of the crab legs whole and the other half shelled. (If you are using a whole crab, you can merely separate the legs into manageable lengths and completely remove all of the shell and cartilage from the body, which will also leave you with about half of the crab in a shell and half shelled. Keep the large crab shell intact, if you like, to decorate the final dish.) Place the crab that is still in its shell in a heatproof dish and steam this over high heat for 5 minutes.

4. Prep the shallots, ginger, and onions, and then add them to the chopped dried shrimp. Mix the soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, rice wine, and pepper in small bowl. Cut the cellophane noodles into pieces approximately 2 inches long. Have a medium sandpot or casserole ready for serving.

5. Pour half of the oil into a wok, heat it over medium-high, and add the shallot mixture. Fry this until it starts to brown. Lower the heat to medium, add the rest of the oil plus the sesame oil, and when the oil is hot, toss in the chopped noodles. Stir-fry the noodles carefully, being sure to scrape up any that stick to the bottom of the wok; if needed, add a bit more oil. Fry the noodles for about 2 or 3 minutes, or until they start to become transparent. Add the crabmeat and the crab in its shell plus half of the seasonings; toss these together until the noodles have absorbed all of the sauce, and then add the rest. Toss these a bit longer, taste and adjust the seasoning, and sprinkle the crab with the onion greens. Toss once more and pour this into the prepared sandpot or casserole. Serve hot. 


Springy & white when dry
As you check over the Dungeness crab legs, use the butt of your knife to crack any pieces that are still solid; your diners will thank you. I tend to use a 3-inch paring knife to wiggle the meat out of the legs, as this also allows me to work my way into the joints and scoop out every last bit of fat and meat. Working over a bowl preserves all of the juices and tiny flakes while you dig away.

If you are using smaller, live crabs, use the same weight of crabs as suggested here. Kill and clean the crabs, and if the shells are around 3 inches across, use a cleaver to chop the crabs into quarters, so that each piece has a quarter of the shell and two legs.

Raw crabs need to first have all cut edges (but not the shells) dusted with flour, and then these cut edges are fried to keep the meat from drying up. Once the cut edges are browned, continue to fry the crabs until they have turned completely pink. Remove them and then proceed to Step 4, after doing Steps 1 and 2 first, of course.

Once you've mastered this dish, you will probably want to play with the seasonings a bit, and that is exactly the way to go here. Add ginger or chilies, use curry powder… anything is permitted here. Just make sure that you don’t drown out the flavor of the crab.