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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Crab feast and Thai seafood sauce


It took me a good long while before I got over my silly fear and tried dungeness crabs.  No, no I wasn't afraid of eating crabs.  I spent every summer of my childhood in Hua Hin on a diet composed almost entirely of crabs and prawns - in fact I'm rather surprised I haven't developed an exoskeleton by now. 

My fear was of pre-cooked crabs, actually.  In Thailand - ok, perhaps not the entire country but at least my family - we never ate dead crabs.  No, we don't eat crabs while they are alive - I only meant we don't eat crabs that had been dead before they were cooked.  If you go to wet markets in Thailand, you won't find a lot of dead crabs for sale.  You will, on the other hand, find crates of still alive (and sometimes crawling) crabs for shoppers to buy and take home to cook.  This is understandable, I suppose.  Dead crabs deteriorate quickly in the tropical heat, by the time you get them home their flesh have broken down into nothing but fishy, smelly mush - we say it's "gone back to sea" in Thai. 

This proved a bit of a predicament for my buddhist "kitchen mother" (that's how household cooks are referred to in Thai).  I still remember her sitting on the floor over a wooden chopping board with an ill-fated crab on top, her eyes closed, one hand in a half namaste while the other holding a sharp cleaver high over her head, her lips moving, quietly (and rapidly) reciting a pray begging the crab's forgiveness before quickly lowering the heavy cleaver to sever the crab in half.  Saturday Night Live can't make that skit up. 

Anyway, that's a rather long-winded way to explain why it took me a good many years to try one of the Bay Area's local specialties, the Dungeness crabs.  And now, when the season is high and the crabs sweet, they are one of my favorite things to eat, especially when dipped into spicy, garlickyThai seafood sauce.  Every time we have a crab feast, I make this sauce for myself and make sure there's drawn butter and even cocktail sauce for others.  But then everyone ends up stealing my sauce and I have to get back to the mortar and make more.  Luckily it's so easy, you hardly need a recipe.

The ingredients are garlic, Thai chilli, palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. The sauce is spicy, with a strong flavor of garlic and a good acidic zing from the lime and a salty and savory flavor from the fish sauce.  In Thailand we use this as a generic sauce for just about any kind of seafood imaginable, crabs, prawns, oysters, fish, anything you get from the sea you can dip into this sauce. 

It's difficult to give precise measurements for the ingredients, and you will need to change them to fit your own taste anyway, so I'll just tell you how I make it.  To make about a little less than a cup of sauce, enough for 2-4 people, I start with 2-3 cloves of garlic and 2-3 spicy Thai bird's eye chilli.  (You can use a bit less now if you're afraid, you can always add more later.)  Pound them together, not too finely, just roughly.  Then I add about a small handful of palm sugar.  Pound again to crush the chunky palm sugar into a fine paste.  Grab two limes, cut each in half and juice them right into the mortar.  Grab the pestle and stir everything well together with it.  Now add the fish sauce, start with 2-3 tablespoon's worth and work your way up.  Now taste it.  Add a bit more sugar if it's too spicy.  A bit more fish sauce if too lime-y.  Juice a bit more lime into it if you were a little heavy handed with the fish sauce.  If you want it to be more garlicky or spicier, transfer the sauce from the mortar into a bowl, then pound more garlic or chilli (or both) in the mortar and spoon out the content into the bowl.  Don't add whole garlic or chilli into the mortar filled with the sauce, you'll be cleaning fish sauce from your ceiling for days to come.

My sauce leads with the spiciness, then follow with the acidity of the lime, then the salty fishsauce, and with just a tiny bit of sweetness at the end.  You can make yours taste however you like it. 


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