For our food to taste good, one basic criteria is good produce. To cook crabs well, one important skill to master is the ability to identify good crabs.
Every time I visit crab mongers, they get a little surprised I know how to feel out a crab. I think it must be a pretty rare skill these days, and of course, it was my father who taught me how to choose good crabs. My mother told me to ask my father, since she was neither interested nor knowledgeable in this area.
My father’s instructions was quite simple when choosing mud crabs. First, he taught me how to differentiate a male crab from a female crab. If you look at the underside of the crab, the female crab’s abdomen is round and broad while the male’s is sharp and pointed. All my photos here feature male crabs because I don’t really feel like having crab roe today.
The male crabs have bigger claws, and the female crabs have ‘sweeter’ meat and bigger bodies with roe.
Secondly, to choose a ‘meat’ crab (肉蟹), you press a ‘live’ crab’s abdomen hard and it must not give. If it does, then it will be a ‘water’ crab (水蟹) meaning the crab is filled with water. A meat crab does not have water within its shells.
Thirdly, my father said that because a meat crab is so filled with meat, the meat will push the shells out and the shells will become shiny.
I have been choosing crabs for more than 30 years, so I can ALMOST identify a meat crab with one look. But it is still an ALMOST. That crab must have certain clear features, which includes really clean shell, but with brown discoloration on the underside. If the shells are white, it is likely it won’t have firm meat. It is hard to explain but if you have chosen enough crabs, you will know what I mean.
To prepare the crab for dishes like Chili Crab, Crab Bee Hoon, Salted Egg Yolk Crabs, Black Pepper Crab etc, we need to clean it. Before cleaning it, you have to slaughter the crab first.
My black and white maid neighbour used to pierce a chopstick through the abdomen to get the life out of the crab. I did this all my life until a few years ago. It was too inhumane and I felt so bad, there were times I just could not eat the crab.
A more scientific way is to put the crab into the freezer and it takes about 10 minutes for the crab to fall into a deep sleep, and then die. It will then not feel any pain when you start to cut it into pieces.
So, this is how you cut the crab into the pieces we see in our dishes. It only works for mud crab and for species like dungeon crabs, I had scratches all over me by the time I was done. I attempted doing this to a dungeon 27 years ago, and never will again. It normally takes me just 5 to 10 minutes to prepare a mud crab, since I have done it for decades. It probably takes someone less experienced a lot longer.
I believe in only eating crabs that are freshly slaughtered simply because bacteria do build up quickly in crabs, as I was told decades ago.
1. Cut off the abdomen flab.
2. Then give the crab a good scrub, paying special attention to the creases.
3. Cut the crab through the center of the abdomen, but not through the top shell.
4. Carefully, pull half the crab’s body out, and then the other half
5. Remove gills and claws and then cut each half into two.
6. Clean the top shell.
7. Use a pestle and gently crack the shell of the claws.
8. And we are done.
Now, we are ready to cook.