Vietnamese-style tamarind crab (cua rang me in Vietnamese) is an incredibly simple, yet absolutely mouth-watering dish. The real key to making this dish successfully is to have the freshest crab you can get. The roughly cracked pieces of crab are stir fried in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce. The sauce is made of tamarind, chili, Thai basil and garlic. The Thai basil imparts an intense fragrance to the sauce, and by extension, to the crab.
We eat this dish family style. No pretense here. Just get a large platter, fill it with the tamarind crab and put it in the middle of your dinner table. We don't have enough meat eaters in my house, so I always call over a couple of family members or friends to share in the bounty. Roll up your sleeves, and dig in!
Servings: 8 servings
6 whole fresh crabs
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional), torn in half
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce (or fish sauce)
2 tablespoons palm sugar (or granulated sugar)
2 teaspoons fresh ginger (see tips)
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
2 teaspoons white pepper, freshly ground
juice of 3 limes, + extra for serving
Clean the crabs, brush and rinse thoroughly. Separate the 2 main claws from each crab. Set aside.
Remove and discard the abdominal flaps (the triangle-shaped tail). Lift and separate the back-fin with the rest of the claws by placing a large tablespoon at the bottom of the crab. Remove and discard the "lungs" (also known as Devil's fingers; they have a spongy texture); they're inedible. Gather the liquid, crab "butter" and corals from the inside of the crabs in a bowl. Discard the main shells.
Using a cleaver, cut the back-fins in half and slightly crack the claws (see tips). Gather the pieces of crab in a large mixing bowl. Add the garlic powder, salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Toss well. Marinate for at least 15 minutes.
In the same bowl containing the crab liquid, combine the kaffir lime leaves (if used), 1 teaspoon of ginger, sugar, soy sauce (or fish sauce) and tamarind paste.
Slightly bruise the basil leaves and coarsely chop them.
In a wok, heat the oil. Add the shallots and ginger and cook until slightly golden and fragrant. Add the garlic. As soon as the garlic is lightly browned, add the crab pieces. Jiggle the wok to make sure the crab does not stick to the bottom of the wok and is totally coated with oil. Add the tamarind mixture. Constantly toss the crab to ensure each piece is coated with the sauce. As soon as all the liquid is evaporated, add the chili garlic sauce (tướng ớt). Toss for 30 seconds and add ½ to one cup of water and about 2 tablespoons of basil leaves. Cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring often. The crab meat should be white and opaque and the liquid should be evaporated as well. Do not over-cook the crab; otherwise the meat will be dry! Un-cover and add the remaining basil leaves and the lemon juice. Toss the crab and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Adjust the seasoning. Season with more salt (if necessary) and pepper; it should balance the sour taste of the tamarind paste and the sweetness from the palm sugar and shallots. Remove and discard the kaffir lime leaves.
Transfer to a large platter. Serve with little dipping bowls filled with lime juice, chili salt (or regular salt) and pepper.
Dig in immediately.
It's important to slightly crack the claws prior to cooking so that the tamarind juice penetrates into the meat. I use a hammer but you can also use the back of a knife; just make sure to crack the shell and not crush it. You don't want to be eating bits of shell! (Note from Carole: we use our meat tenderizer mallet and it worked great!)
Crab season is between November and January. I always get it at Asian markets. Papa's (my dad) advice on selecting crabs: First, if you don't see a lot of crabs in the tank, don't buy from that market. Second, pick up the crab you intend to buy and only take it home if it feels heavy for its size. And most important, make sure that they're alive. I never plan on buying crab; I only get it when it's fresh, and there's no way to know that until you go to the market.
Unlike regular limes, kaffir limes have a bumpy exterior. The fruit doesn't have a lot of juice, and what juice it does have, is quite bitter. Kaffir lime trees are prized for their fragrant leaves, not their fruit. I used fresh kaffir lime leaves from our garden. If you can't find any, you can use fresh mint leaves. Don't add too much kaffir lime leaf to the dish as it tastes very strong and will overpower the crab. You can use the remaining leaves for sweet and sour soups.
You can find tamarind concentrate in any Asian store. It has a nice, tart flavor. You can also use fresh tamarind pods if you like but I find this process to be too labor intensive.
You can find Thai basil in any Asian stores.
Quick note on how to make freshly grated ginger: Clean the ginger root and remove any dirt. Peel the ginger root with a paring knife (or the edge of a spoon). Grate the ginger with a fine mesh microplane. Gather about 2 teaspoons of grated ginger root.
I always brush the crabs, rinse thoroughly and place the crabs in the freezer (for about 45 minutes) prior to cutting them. If you have a better method, please share.
It's important to always keep the temperature of the stove at the highest setting. The higher the temperature, the better. If some solids start sticking to the bottom of the wok, add a little water.
Don't put your wok in the sink right away... I always like to dig in some bread at the bottom of the wok and get all the caramelized garlic goodness. Yum..