According to the ancient Chinese scheme of things that assigns qualities of yin and yang to every member of the food world, crab is considered highly yin, that is, chill-inducing. At the crab-eating parties, which abound in classic Chinese novels (hardly anything in literary China happened in the absence of food), young ladies with colds are banned from the feasting, while old grannies don shawls as the crab is set before them. Ground thistle roots are recommended as the appropriate antidote for those who have downed their crab unthinkingly. It is considered, even today, a very serious business.
About 30 minutes before serving, kill, clean, chop, and crack the crab. Scrub the top shell and reserve it as a cover for the crab during steaming.
(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)
Reserving the top shell, arrange the crab pieces in their original shape—with the legs fanned prettily around the body pieces—on a heatproof plate at least 1 inch smaller in diameter than your steamer. Sprinkle the wine evenly over the crab. Bruise the ginger with the blunt handle or side of a cleaver or heavy knife to release the juices, then array it over the body pieces. Replace the top shell, covering the body meat and the ginger.
Bring the water in the steaming vessel to a gushing boil over high heat, then add the plate to the steaming rack. Cover the steamer and steam the crab over high heat for 15 minutes.
While the crab is steaming, mix the dip in individual dishes. Set the table with the dip dishes, plenty of napkins, and a large empty bowl to hold the discarded shells.
Remove the crab promptly from the steamer. Use chopsticks to retrieve and discard the ginger coins, then replace the top shell. Garnish, if you wish, with sprigs of coriander, then serve the crab straightaway.
To eat crab well, one must do so with gusto, without self-consciousness, and in the pursuit of pure eating pleasure. Fingers, chopsticks, and teeth are all worthy tools in the quest. Proper table manners will only get in the way.
Once the meat is freed from the shell, dunk it in the dip and eat it. That is all there is to this simple dish.
Cold steamed crab is quite good, especially when tossed in a simple green salad and dressed with some of the leftover sauce.
© 1982 Barbara Tropp estate. All rights reserved.