Stir-Fried Dancing Crab

豆豉炒旁蟹

Any knowing Chinese will buy a crab only when it is alive, kicking, and “dancing.” Boxes of the critters arrive twice daily in Chinatowns during crab season, thrashing, spitting bubbles, and clinging tightly to their neighbors’ claws, so that when one picks up one’s chosen beast (by the tail end, that is, farthest from the pincers) it often comes up monkey-style, with a string of hangers-on.

  • A dead crab, one that is not moving, is a decidedly dull crab. The flesh oxidizes within minutes after death, even inside the shell. The only crab I will use is a live one that I do in myself, by dumping it into boiling water for a quick and speedy end.
  • This dish is easy and fast to make and an absolute joy to eat, if you are the type who enjoys getting your fingers into the food. To quote Euell Gibbons writing in a similar context about a crab boil dinner, “avoid all attempts at toniness, for the dish is not compatible with swank.”
  • The seasonings for the crab may be readied in advance. Killing, cleaning, and stir-frying take a total of 10 minutes if you’re a speedy cleaner.

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* I always find the empty shell a big disappointment in a stir-fry, expecting in a childish way that it should somehow be filled with great lumps of crab. So I discard it.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds large, emphatically alive crabs —Dungeness on the West Coast, blue crabs on the East

Aromatics

  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon salted Chinese black beans (not the variety seasoned with five-spice powder)
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese rice wine or quality, dry sherry
  • 3–4 large cloves garlic, stem end removed, lightly smashed and peeled
  • walnut-size nuggets fresh ginger, or walnut-size nuggets fresh “young” ginger
  • 2 medium whole scallions, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • ⅛–¼ teaspoon dried red chili flakes (optional)

Liquid seasonings

  • ½–1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon sugar
  • ¾ cup light, unsalted chicken stock
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold chicken stock
  • ¼ pound ground pork butt, or 2–3 tablespoons coarsely minced Smithfield ham, 2 parts ham lean plus 1 part ham fat
  • 3 tablespoons corn or peanut oil

To garnish

  • 1 teaspoon Chinese or Japanese sesame oil
  • fresh coriander sprigs

Method

Preparations

Keep the crab alive and lively until you are ready to cook it, as described in TECHNIQUE NOTES.

Up to several hours in advance, coarsely chop the black beans. Do not rinse them. Combine with the wine, then set aside to plump.

Mince the garlic and ginger until fine in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife or by hand. Mince the scallion more coarsely, either by adding it to the work bowl and processing with on-off turns once the garlic and ginger are fine-minced, or by hand. Seal airtight until use.

Combine the soy, sugar, and stock, using the lesser amount of soy if you are using the Smithfield ham.

Killing and cleaning the crab

About 25–30 minutes in advance of serving, bring a large pot of unsalted water to a gushing boil over high heat. Holding the crab by its rear end, drop it into the water. As soon as the legs curl and it stops moving, in about 15 seconds, drain or retrieve the crab with a mesh spoon or tongs. Rinse briefly with a spray of cool water, then proceed immediately to clean it, as described above in TECHNIQUE NOTES.

Once clean, snap off the legs and claws. Crack them lightly with a mallet or the blunt handle end of a cleaver to allow the seasonings to penetrate. With a cleaver or heavy knife, chop the body into 2 or 4 pieces, depending upon the size of the crab. Once cut, proceed immediately to stir-fry it.

Stir-frying the crab

Have all the ingredients within easy reach of your stovetop. Put a serving platter of contrasting color in a low oven to warm.

Heat a wok or large, heavy skillet over high heat until hot enough to evaporate a bead of water on contact. Add the oil and swirl to glaze the pan. When the oil is hot enough to sizzle one bit of garlic, add the garlic, ginger, scallion, and optional chili flakes, adjusting the heat so they foam without browning. Stir until fragrant, about 15–20 seconds, then add the pork. Stir-fry briskly until the meat is 90 percent gray, tossing, chopping, and pressing to break it into tiny bits and adjusting the heat to maintain a lively sizzle. If you are using ham instead of pork, simply stir-fry to combine and render some of the fat, about 10 seconds.

Add the crab to the pan, stir 3 or 4 times to combine, then splash in the wine and beans. Stir several seconds to evaporate the alcohol, then add the liquid seasonings. Stir, even the contents of the pan, and raise the heat to bring the liquids to a boil. Cover the pan and steam-cook the crab vigorously for about 3 minutes, or until only ¼ of the liquid is left.

Reduce the heat to low, uncover, and stir. Taste the sauce and adjust with soy or a pinch of sugar if needed. Stir the cornstarch mixture to recombine, and add it to the pan. Stir about 15 seconds, until the sauce thickens slightly and becomes glossy. (By this point, there will be only a bit of liquid left and the cornstarch will serve to bind the meat and seasonings to the crab.) Add the sesame oil, toss to combine, then pile the contents onto the heated platter.

Arrange the mound to show a claw poking out here or there, then crown the dish with a top shell or two or a flourish of fresh coriander. Serve the crab immediately, accompanied by plenty of napkins and a large empty bowl to hold the shells.

For the Chinese approach to crab-eating, pick up the chosen piece with chopsticks, and a finger as well if needed for surety. Suck noisily and happily on the shell to savor and glean every bit of sauce, then pull the denuded shell apart with fingers, chopsticks, and teeth, and retrieve and enjoy every crabby bit.

Leftovers (unlikely) are a pale shadow of their original glory, but may be eaten cold.

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