Samui Wining & Dining
A Feast of Crab

It can get messy, but it’s well worth it!

 

14“Why don’t we do this more often?” mumbles my companion breathlessly as he licks and sucks on the sweet juices running down his fingers. It’s a hands-on all-sensory experience and you can’t stop till you’ve had enough. You get sweaty and sticky. You are absorbed and focused, and don’t always notice you are making happy little grunting noises. And no, it’s not Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s eating fresh crab on Samui.

      There are probably 50 ways to serve it, but without any effort I can rattle off a dozen: crab in a hot and spicy soup (tom yam pu) , stir fried with garlic and black pepper, stir fried in curry powder, steamed and served with a piquant seafood sauce, green papaya som tam with crab pieces, crab in coconut curry, stir fried with glass noodles, steamed in coconut cream, soft shell crabs stir fried in garlic and pepper or in a ‘yam’ (Thai style salad), crab cakes, and the most ubiquitous and always satisfying, fried rice with crab meat.

      So why don’t we do it more often? Well, it is messy. While you can always opt for the easy solution and order crab meat only, there’s a whole range of flavours missing when you cook it without the shell. And with the shell on, there’s no way to eat it without using your hands.

      There’s perhaps another reason we don’t bother - learning something new is always tough and we don’t want to look foolish. Eating with Thai friends I notice that even the children are able to extract much more of the juicy meat than I do.

       But it’s a life skill that’s well worth the payoff, so here’s a quick crab tutorial. Crabs are decapods - which means they have ten feet but only a single pair of claws. The other pointy bits are really feelers. It’s easy to twist them off the carapace, and if the crab is perfectly cooked it takes only a small bite to crunch off the end of the feelers and suck out all the sweet meat. Persevere until you get your money’s worth. If it’s tough to suck it out, the crab may be overcooked.

      Never mind, there’s plenty more in the claws. Usually the cook has kindly given these a hard whack before adding them to the pot, so you’ll find that the divine flavours have permeated into the flesh, and it’s easy to pry or bite the claws to release the most satisfying chunks of white and light crabmeat.

       The carapace itself is easy to pull apart, and you can find more meat inside. Sometimes near the tail there will be deliciously rich yellow egglike chunks as well. That’s because it’s a female, and this is actually the roe.

         If you are having trouble at any point, don’t hesitate to call your wait staff who will no doubt be helpful and non-judgmental. Mine was. I couldn’t work out where the meat had disappeared to in a serving of steamed ‘pu dam’ (black crab served with a piquant seafood sauce), and the waiter showed me how the abdomen meat had been separated out for me in the kitchen and was attached to the claw to make for easier munching.

         Another reason we may hesitate is concern for our health - we all know that shellfish should be really fresh. ‘Pu ma’ are ocean crabs, and if you are ever in Nathon in the morning, you can see tables of them, fresh off the boat, along the pier for sale to local housewives planning a family treat. But you probably weren’t planning to take one home to your hotel. Fortunately, on Samui there are a number of restaurants with live crab tanks. Here you will most commonly see blue ‘pu ma’ crabs dancing sideways and raising a claw in greeting. ‘Pu dam’, the bigger black crabs are tidal water creatures that live in mangroves and creeks. They are also kept alive for the restaurant trade and so always fresh. Another reason not to fear is that there’s no way to disguise a bad crab by cooking it, so that it’s highly unlikely you will get any tummy trouble.

         You may think that crabs are an elite food, or sound expensive. In fact they make up 20% of all marine crustaceans caught, farmed, and consumed worldwide - that’s almost 1.5 million tonnes annually. Thailand has a dynamic and indigenous aquaculture industry and while crab is definitely a treat, it’s not uncommon, and not that pricey.

         One of my personal favourites is soft-shell crab. These have moulted and are cooked before their exoskeleton forms again. This means the entire crab can be eaten without wrestling with the shell, and typically it’s served deep fried. My favourite is with som tam, where the spicy salad’s tart bite cuts through the crispy-fried crab.

         But are they fresh or frozen, I wonder? No big deal - I reckon it’s worth taking a chance, and when the soft shell crabs I order for this review turn out to have been frozen, and the taste and texture have suffered as a result, I can let it go.

         That’s because I’ve ordered loads more crab dishes, and I’m enjoying the sharp peppery taste of ‘pu phad prik Thai dam’ - crab stir fried in black pepper. It’s amazing how the right combination of just a few ingredients - crab, garlic, chili, onion, black pepper and a little soya sauce can go such long way to make me very, very happy. We’ve also got ‘pu phad pong karee, another stir fried dish with curry powder. This is the only Thai dish I know where curry powder is used in place of fresh curry paste, and I’m assuming it’s because the milder powder doesn’t overwhelm the delicate crab.

         The southern Thai coconut crab curry is also fairly mild. This has quite a lot more ingredients, including coconut milk and cream, palm sugar, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, fish sauce, lime juice, turmeric, grachai and kapi (fermented shrimp paste). It’s a warm, comforting, rich and creamy dish, and we finish the whole bowl.

         We also demolished the crab fried rice. It’s wonderfully more-ish for such an apparently ordinary dish, and while we were concerned that we’d overreached by ordering only crab dishes, it was an unexpected highlight.

         Staggering crab wise out of the restaurant, I think I had a vague sense of why we don’t do this more often: while crab meat is very light and tasty, it’s hard not to overindulge!

         

Annie Lee


 


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