Monday, April 25, 2016

Sexy Shanghai crab

I really cannot think of a more luxurious cuisine than the delicious trifecta that includes Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Just like in last week’s recipe for Clams in Custard, the names for some of these dishes do not scream out sensuality, in either Chinese OR English. But believe me, food just does not get better than this. Something about the area around the Yangtze River Delta manages to bring perfect ingredients, textural nuance, and fresh flavors together in the ways that continually astound and delight.

Take this dish, for example. It is, simply put, insanely easy to put together, and yet I’ve never found it anywhere in the States. You find yourself a crab, have your fishmonger prep it, and then you toss it in a vibrant sauce with some rice cakes. Fifteen, twenty minutes, tops. But the results are incredible: sweet crabmeat contrasts with the salty seasonings, hard shells bounce up against the pillowy rice cakes, and the sauce forms a silky sheet that brings everything together.

Dining on this is also a descent into a more hedonistic realm that you might expect, as you have to slow down as you peel the shells off of the crab, lick your fingers and the shells, dip your crabmeat into the creamy sauce, and then enjoy its fresh sweetness against the puffy rice cakes, that turn soft and chewy in their short braise.

Cracked Dungeness
You can use live or cooked crabs for this recipe. I live in the Bay Area, so our go to variety is freshly steamed Dungeness. But live ones work equally well. Just go with whatever is local and in season. If you get a cooked crab, ask your fishmonger to do the following: save the carapace (top shell), remove the gills and clean the body, but keep any tomalley or roe, and then chop the body and crack the legs. For live ones, ask that they be killed and then prepared as with the cooked ones. You can do this at home, but this is a whole lot easier and makes you enjoy the dish even more.

It’s crab season around here. Get cracking.

Crab in bean sauce with rice cakes
Jiàngbào pángxiè nián’gāo  醬爆螃蟹年糕
Serves 4 to 6

Around 1 pound/450g whole crab or crabs (see headnotes)
Flour, as needed (about 3 tablespoons)
Around 8 ounces/225g rice cakes (batons preferred, but ovals ok)
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon bean sauce (see Tips)
1 tablespoon catsup
1 cup/240ml water
1 cup/240ml peanut or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
2 green onions, whites and greens chopped and kept in separate piles
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
  teaspoons pale rice vinegar
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

1. Check over the crab and use the butt of your Chinese knife or cleaver to crack any parts that look too solid, as you want your diners to enjoy the food without wrestling with it. Remove any loose bits of shell and check to see that the gills (feathery bits) have all been successfully removed. Place the crab (including the carapace) in a large work bowl and toss with enough flour to coat it evenly. 

Fried crab
2. Next, shake the rice cakes into another work bowl and separate them as much as possible, since you want them to cook evenly and get a chance to completely soften up in the sauce as fast as possible. Mix together the soy sauce, sugar, bean sauce, catsup, and water. Set a clean, heatproof work bowl, Chinese spider or slotted spoon, and work chopsticks next to the stove.

3. Place your wok over medium-high heat and add the oil when the iron is hot. As soon as a bit of flour sprinkled on the oil sizzles and disappears, pick up small handfuls of the crab and shake off the extra flour before sliding them into the hot oil. Cook the crab in 2 or 3 batches so that you have plenty of room to move them around and toss them in the oil. As soon as the crab is a pale gold and the shells turn pink, use your spider and chopsticks to remove them to the clean work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the crab until it is all fried.
Baton-shaped rice cakes

4. Drain out all but a couple of tablespoons of oil and return the wok to medium-high heat. Add the garlic, ginger, and onion whites to the hot oil and stir them around. Once they begin to take on a slightly golden tinge, scrape them and the oil out onto the crab.

5. Pour the soy sauce mixture into the wok and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the rice cakes and bring the sauce to a boil before lower the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the rice cakes until they are soft and pillowy, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring often so that they do not stick to the wok; add more water, if necessary.

6. When the rice cakes are as soft as you like them, raise the heat to high. Toss in the crab and fried aromatics, as well as the rice wine, vinegar, and sesame oil. Toss these continually until the sauce thickens and the crab is heated through. At the last minute, toss in the onion greens and serve in a shallow bowl or casserole with the top shell perched attractively over the top, along with a bowl on the side to collect the shells.


Non-spicy bean sauce
Be sure to use a non-spicy bean sauce here, the one called doubanjiang, not la doubanjiang. Har Har brand from Taiwan is very good and comes in both cans and jars. (You can, of course, use a spicy bean sauce here, but it will then turn into more of a Sichuan-style dish. Still very tasty that way, of course!)

If you don't have this type of sauce on hand, sweet wheat sauce (tiánmiànjiàng) can be used instead.

Rice cakes generally come either in batons, which are about 1 inch/2.2cm long and ¼ inch/5mm wide, or as oval discs a little over an inch long. The latter are cut from logs, which occasionally can be found, but these are difficult to slice unless you get them very fresh. Fortunately, rice cakes are easy to find in Korean markets, as well as Chinese ones that cater to more recent immigrants, and they will be stored in the frozen or refrigerated section, usually near noodles and other starchy products.

If the rice cakes are frozen, remove as many as you plan to use and then freeze the rest. Fresh ones should be used up within a week or two, and be sure and discard them if they get black spots or feel slimy. Fresh rice cakes can also be frozen if you are not planning to use them immediately.

This crab dish makes great leftovers. Bring about a cup of water to a boil, and then toss the leftovers in the boiling water until they heat through; add more boiling water as needed to keep the rice cakes and sauce from sticking.


In the picture at the top of the page you will see that I fried the onion greens first to toast them up. A guest for that particular dinner doesn't care for raw or lightly cooked onion greens, so I fried them to a golden brown, which changed their character enough so that she was very happy. I got some nice green onion oil out of the deal, so I was happy, too.  

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