Along with folding dumplings, my mother used to assign me to clean a dozen stope crabs at a time for Vietnamese deviled crab (cua farci). I got a lot of practice, starting around the time I was 12. Whether you cooked a crab yourself or bought it pre-cooked, you still have to get the meat out yourself.
Some tips to pre-cooked crab buyers, don’t let the fish monger crack the crab for you. Chances are, the person will bang on the crab with a mallet, and dump out all the tomalley and fat. Also, don’t forget to ask when the crab was cooked. If you get home with the crab and it smells off – ammonia like, or if the flesh is mushy, take it back to the store for an exchange or refund. One time I got a crab that was totally black inside. Eewwww.
Whether you pick Dungeness, blue, stone crab or another variety, it’s a fun thing to do. Kind of meditative. Keep a glass of wine nearby and turn on the tunes. Invite someone to join you. I’ve trained my husband and we do it together.
Here’s how I typically clean and pick a crab:
If the crab was just cooked (see this post for info on buying and cooking live crab), transfer it to a plate or baking sheet for about 20 minutes, or until it is cool enough to handle. People with skin reactions to crab shell may want to put on a pair of thin gloves.
Work near the sink and have a plastic bag nearby to hold unwanted shell bits. Put the crab, top side down, on the work surface. Pull off the claws and legs and pile them nearby. Lift up and break off the triangular flap (the apron). Holding the crab down with one hand, pry off the body section with the other hand, lifting from the back hinge. Set the body section aside.
Discard the shell if you don’t want the tomalley (liver) and fat, which some call the viscera. Otherwise, pour out the liquid inside the shell, stopping short of the more solid, thickish contents, which is the greenish gold tomalley and white fat. It may look like the contents of a poopy diaper, but it’s crab gold to those who love it. If you’re fond of the stuff like I am, use a teaspoon to scrape the tomalley and fat into a small bowl and discard the empty shell.
Discard the fang-shaped spongy gills on the body section. Snap off and discard the thin jaws. If present, discard the reddish membrane that covers the center and the squiggly white pieces underneath. Scrape out any additional tomalley from the body section with the spoon.
Use your hands to snap the body in half. Use your fingers to remove the meat from all the little channels, depositing it in another bowl. Then crack and remove the meat from the claws and legs, adding it to the bowl. A metal nutcracker is handy for cracking, and the pointy tip of a crab leg is perfect for digging out the meat.
How much stuff will you get? A 2-pound Dungeness crab yields about 8 ounces (225 grams) of meat and 1/4 cup of tomalley and fat. To save time, cook, clean, and pick crab a day or two in advance, then cover the bowls of meat and tomalley and fat and refrigerate. My personal rule is that I get a chunk of fresh crab to eat when I’m done.
What to do with your crabby treasure?
- My favorite way to show off crab is in a Viet mien xao cua, a stir-fry of cellophane noodles and crab. The tomalley and fat, along with an egg, imbues the noodles with golden color and briny flavor. It’s a fabulous and effective way to make the most of your efforts. The recipe is in Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, page 236. If you get Edible SF, the recipe was featured in the Winter 2013 issue; look for Celia Sack’s essay.
- You can also make a Franco-Vietnamese deviled crab (cua farci). There’s the ramekin version on page 44 of the Viet cookbook. Or, try this one made with a Sriracha and crab mixture baked in wonton skin cups.
- A classic northern Viet crab noodle soup preparation is bun rieu cua, which I make with crab and shrimp. See page 215 of the Viet cookbook for a recipe. There’s a vegetarian version posted here that includes a nifty trick of coagulating soy milk.
- If you like to pick crab at the table, consider a Viet nosh treat called cua hap bia (crab steamed in beer). Or, keep things ultra simple and eat the crab with a dip in a salt, white pepper and lime dipping sauce. Homemade mayonnaise ain't bad either!
Crab finds its way into many Viet dishes. Check the index of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen for more ideas, as well as search this site for “crab.”
What's your favorite way to eat crab?