Crab Cravings

In the old days, crab shells are cracked the traditional
way using a mortar and pestle
According to my dad, the best way to eat crabs is at home because we can shed every inhibition to dig in with both hands and slurp off every drop of gravy from the shells.  I agree that there’s no better way to enjoy these fleshy crustaceans than to hold them in our hands and scrape out every nook and cranny for juicy morsels.  It is a messy job but so rewarding if you appreciate the pure joy of shedding the shells to savour the chunks of smooth, sweet white flesh.

There was an abundance of fresh crabs for dinner when we lived in Masai in the early 1970s and I remember my fascination in watching mum clean and cook the live crabs.  Dad’s has a preference for flower crabs while I’m partial to the more succulent mud crabs but mum has several special recipes that would get all of us tucking into the crabs.  When we were children, our mum would scrape out the flesh for us and when we learnt how to handle the crabs, she would give us the claws because they are the fleshiest part of the crab.

Whole crabs were served in our kampung lunch
at Kampung Sungai Melayu, Nusajaya
In those days, having crab dinners means that we have large enamel plates ready to collect the shells that would be buried in our backyard.  More importantly, mum’s mortar and pestle would be on hand to pound and crack the claws to extract its juicy flesh.  We do not bother about wearing bibs but will shower and change later because we usually end up with oily faces and a big splatter on the front of our clothes!

I recall how mum pounded fresh chilli, garlic and ginger in her mortar and pestle to make a dip sauce for a meal of steamed crabs.  Whole crabs, washed and arranged on a large enamel plate, were steamed in a wok for a few minutes and served immediately.  It was also a lesson in crab anatomy as I observed how mum deftly removed its apron before ripping off the top shell to clean out the lungs and messy bits before offering us the exposed tasty white flesh.

I was rather intimidated by this gadget that a
restaurant offered to crack the crab shells!
This came to mind recently when I joined a media tour at Kampung Sungai Melayu in Nusajaya where we went on a boat cruise in the estuary with fishermen and had the chance to catch crabs that were later cooked for lunch.  The fishermen had traps prepared with bait for us to drop into the river and before we returned to the jetty, we fished out the traps and voila – mud crabs were trapped inside!  The freshly harvested mud crabs were boiled whole and for me, it was pure nostalgia to rip the crab apart to eat and pound the claws on a mortar and pestle to get to its juicy sweet flesh!

Restaurants normally provide this plier-like
crab cracker for diners
In the same media tour, we dined in a seafood restaurant and blackpepper crabs was among the dishes served.  I noticed that we ate from all the dishes and hardly touched the crabs probably because most of us were reluctant to dig in with our hands.  Those who couldn’t resist the crabs started on it and when they discovered how the claw shells were not cracked before cooking, they asked the restaurant for a crab cracker.

Seafood restaurants usually provide diners with crab crackers, a tool with two handles that resembles a nutcracker, to crack open claw shells.  We were expecting the restaurant to give us a pliers-like tool but to our surprise, they supplied a rather intimidating looking gadget made of chrome that looked like a giant stapler.  It took a bit of courage and a lot of skill for the crab lovers among us to manipulate the sauce-covered slippery-shelled claws into the space where a hammer should come down to crack the shells!
Chilli Crab with loads of gravy to be eaten with bread, served at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, Dempsy Hill, Singapore
Luscious crab stewed in Ng Kah Pei, a Chinese wine, at Full Taste Restaurant, Taman Mutiara Rini, JB
I’m grateful that my recent crab cravings were met by a series of sumptuous crab treats that ranged from that humble kampung meal to a chilli crab dinner at the renowned Long Beach Seafood Restaurant in Dempsy Hill, Singapore.  This was followed by more crab from the seafood buffet at the Friday Seafood Fiesta in Harbour Café, Traders Hotel Puteri Harbour and last weekend, I thoroughly enjoyed the taste of luscious crab stewed in Ng Kah Pei, a Chinese wine, at a restaurant in Taman Mutiara Rini. 
Whether by pounding with a traditional mortar and pestle or in wielding a mallet, it’s interesting how fans of a good crab meal would tackle their crabs and do everything possible to get to the smooth and tasty crab meat.

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 7 April 2014

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