Wednesday, January 23, 2008

La Violeta Gentil y Los Cangrejos Rojos

My crab- killing skills were not learned from the culinary school, but from a most gentle woman named Violeta. A very amiable woman who ball room- dances weeknights and goes to church at dawn, Señora Violeta, mother of my best friend Frances, is one of my best culinary influences. I have been eating at Frances’s house since I was thirteen. After school and we were very hungry, we would drop by for bahaw (rice leftovers from lunch), and feast on adobo (pork stew in soy and vinegar), kinunot (baby shark in coco milk with Japanese horseradish tree leaves), crema de fruta, etcetera. It was with La Señora whom I experienced my first catering task: Christmas party for kids at the Chiang Kai Shek Chinese School. I was fourteen.

Señora Violeta was the one who taught me how to cook live crabs.

“How do you cook live crabs?” she once asked.
“Submerge in water? Then boil?” I said.
“Then, you’ll find all legs gone when you open the pot.”
“Ok, how?” I asked.
“You kill it first. Get an ice pick, impale the crab through the navel. The creature won’t struggle in hot water when it’s dead. You’ll have a nice, beautiful crab- all legs intact – because all that struggling makes the crab lose its legs.”

I loved that advice – for before that I didn’t care if I tortured the poor crabs – getting boiled alive – and get all peripherals gone. So cruel of me! Cooking live crabs is also something not ordinary in the culinary school because we get our orders as crab meats, the Japanese kani sticks or unhappy dead crabs delivered to us by suppliers.

There are crabs available in most wet markets, and normally live crabs are placed in cages like these ones at the Farmer’s Market.

Crabs can be cooked in different ways. For me they are actually some of the world’s yummiest sea creatures. Like the ones they serve at the Red Crab Restaurant, they can be cooked spicy Szechwan style, or Señora Violeta’s incomparable red crabs with vermicelli and coconut milk. Then Sponge Bob’s crabbie patties (crab cakes- I used to prepare this at home then my sisters always ask, “Why do you like crab (and fish )cakes?” Duh- it’s delicious!), crab salad (real crab meat though a little expensive is much better than the crab stick) , crab omelette, stir- fry, many more.

I remember when as a child we had crabs at home, I was always dismayed when they were cooked with something else – specially vegetables (Except Tatay Inggo’s -the old family chef- crab and corn soup). Not that I didn’t like vegetables, but cooking it that way didn’t appear so nice to me back then. While I didn’t have the power to convince our house help or my mother to change their minds on crab cooking, I’d always have my crabs – my way: just cooked in natural water and a little salt. This way, there goes the essence of the crabs – the “crabness” – a little taste of the brackish water that they absorbed in their lifetimes, the tenderness of the flesh hidden under the shell – and if the crab is a little healthy, that delicious layer of aligue. All- crab. Without the alien taste of spices nor sauce.

So here it is to prepare live crabs (afterwards, you can do anything you want with the cooked creature)

1. The crabs are purchased tied with a string – sometimes plastic- but I always prefer the organic ones like raw abaca or coconut material. Don’t remove these strings when the crabs are very aggressive, unless you want to chase them throughout your house or claw you. Once I was in the kitchen of the big house and I let loose some crabs, one fell from the kitchen sink and there it went walking sideward until I have to poke it with a broom stick when it went under the sofa. Ok. – Crab cooking.

2. While still tied, turn the crab on its back. Then get a knife or an ice pick and puncture through the navel. Search on the crab anatomy and the stomach of the crab is that part between where the covering (the apron) makes an angle near the eyes. Impale the crab through it, and it will hold still.

3. When the crab is dead, place on a pot, add very little water (or to fully maximize the crab taste and full texture, add nothing) drizzle a little salt. Some cooks may not want to add salt- it's up to you. Crabs are naturally tasteful, though. Cover. Cook until done, about 15 minutes.

4. Best served steaming hot, on a table lined with newspapers or banana leaves, and bottles of super iced beer. You can have lemon wedges if you like, or soy cause with calamansi- native lemon. For Asians, best enjoyed with hot rice- eaten with bare hands.

5. Best enjoyed with a good company.

Cooking live crabs with all legs intact – is highly advisable when you are serving the crab whole – it is very presentable.

Entonces, muchas gracias Señora! =)


Anonymous said...


I just had a vision of Hitchcock's 'The Birds' turned into 'The Crabs'- and you poking them with a broom stick! hahaha
I don't know who's more feisty, the crabs or the huntress! ;-)

As a kid i would have them the same way. Boiled and cracked on the kitchen table covered with newspapers. But i had mine with homemade mayonnaise though. That's a French thing. haha

Love your technique, you're a pro!

elay said...

when i was a kid i hated crabs (di ba, did you remember that?)...and now i see how much i have missed..that's why i eat every crab that comes my way these days to make up for all those crabs that went to somebody else's stomach..

foodhuntress79 said...

The crabs are definitely more feisty, Zen Chef. I'm no match :)

Ellai, whatever happened to the spanner crab? I'm waiting. Hahahaha