It was the evening after the day before and my family was gathered around a table.
We washed our hands and approached the table.
A spoon was procured and the tapping began.
A crack. A slurp. A murmur.
Eyes fixed on bright orange roe in its still steaming housing.
Fingers turned as red as the shells they held.
And on we ate.
Some hours earlier, I had been ushered into the backseat of my uncle’s car. My Si-Chim (Fourth Aunt) was going shopping.
After a short stop at the Econsave (where the Bean, my cousin Anne & I got into all sorts of mischief) I found myself in unknown streets, stopped in front of a yellow house with pink gates.
“Time to get out!” said my Si-Chek (Fourth Uncle)
“Is this someone’s house?” asked the Bean, confused.
“No.” replied Anne, grinning “This is where we buy crab.”
It smelt like the sea.
Empty styrofoam boxes labelled “AIR MALAYSIA – FRAGILE” lined the walls.
A gloved man systematically sorted the crabs in the box in front of him. Lifting each to see its underside, he considered its flap for half a second before sorting them into male and female boxes, ready to be sold.
My aunty pointed and spoke rapid fire Hokkien with the boss lady.
I took photos of myself pretending to be a crab and peered into the styrofoam boxes dotting the floor.
Each contained crabs of different sizes and (from my somewhat sketchy understanding of the conversation going on behind me, I understood that) as the size of crab increased, so did the price per kilo.
The largest crabs were in the 60RM/kg range (around $20AUD) and struggled against their pink-string-tied claws in the hopes of snapping at my inquisitive face.
These were mud crabs, with one claw larger than the other.
(It was worth noting this later that night when someone claimed dibs on a claw.)
They lay as if asleep until the box was shifted, then snapped to life, beady eyes darting around suspiciously.
“I think they’re jetlagged” said Si-Chek.
“That means they’ll be extra cranky later, right?” said I.
Later that evening, my cousins started disappearing. One after the other they abandoned card games without a word – following their noses to the backyard where a plate of freshly steamed crab sat on a trestle table.
“Why you no call me?” I scolded them, as they looked up with guilty eyes. (My English deteriorates somewhat after a couple of days in Malaysia).
Si-chek pried open the top shell of a crab and pulled it in half. We watched, absorbed, as he picked up a morsel of bright orange roe from the steaming plate and popped it into his mouth.
And with that word, it was on.
Fingers became blurs as the roe was picked up and pried out and handed from hand to hand.
A pause as we contemplated whether it would be entirely impolite to start cracking into the meat before dinner time.
Spoons were procured from drawers as the sound of crab shells cracking began – no need for specifically designed shell crunchers here, oh no. A simple tap-tap-tap on the highest point of the shell will send vibrations through it and… suddenly, miraculously, it will fracture along its weakest points.
I was not so good at this particular method.
Thonk-thonk-thonk went the spoon across my piece, and then clank-clank-clank went a knife, until someone took pity (or potentially reached a level of frustration at my ineptitude) and handed me a claw. Hurrah!
The first batch demolished, I went to watch my uncle cook the second and later floated around the table in case anyone decided not to partake of their share.
salt water steamed crab
My uncle got this recipe from a restaurant he frequented for its delicious steamed salted crab. (I say frequented because whilst he still eats there often, he now only really orders the noodles). As the story goes, he decided to bring along a number of bottles of beer one evening and, after drinking said bottles with the owner, asked how the crab was cooked. The rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve guesstimated this recipe from watching my uncle cook. His video demonstration can be viewed below.
you will need:
about 2kg mud crab
5 tsp salt
250ml hot water
how to do it:
1. Clean the crab of any grit, dirt and moss. Be careful as they are feisty and may pincer big holes in your thumb.
2. Toss the crabs in the wok. Crank the heat and let the wok heat until it starts steaming.
3. Mix up the salt and water until they’re dissolved. Have a taste, it should be a salty as seawater. Toss the salt water into the wok and place the lid on top.
4. Leave the crabs until you can smell them – and I mean really smell them. Imagine the smell of prawn shells roasting and double it. We cooked ours for about 15 minutes after which time the shells were bright orange and people walking in the door knew to walk straight to the kitchen for their next dose.