Chili crab: A great, messy Asian-style feast

When you’re ready to sit down to this dish, “don’t wear your good T-shirt.”

When you’re ready to sit down to the dish below, “don’t wear your good T-shirt,” said Zakary Pelaccio in Eat With Your Hands (Ecco). I’m a big believer in eating with my hands, but even though this traditional Asian dish is popular with my Manhattan customers at Fatty Crab, it’s “seriously messy.”

I love the fact that eating shellfish forces a deeper connection—“whether you want it or not”—between a diner and his food. “Here in the United States, we’re rarely presented with the chance to kill our own dinner.” And with shellfish, the reward is so great. Under those “spiny, hard, and generally unlovely shells” awaits sweet, succulent meat. The taste is so distinctive that you can choose to “bomb” shellfish with spices and the flavor won’t get lost.

Recipe of the week: Chili crab

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4 live Dungeness crabs, about 1 lb each

For garlic-ginger paste

Pound the following with mortar and pestle, adding one ingredient at a time:

2 inches fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced

3 garlic cloves, crushed and peeled

3 shallots, thinly sliced

One 4-oz jar crab paste

1 tsp sambal belacan

For sriracha liquid

Whisk together:

¼ cup sriracha sauce

1 tbsp each rice vinegar and oyster sauce

2 tbsp each sugar and dark soy sauce

3 tbsp each tomato puree and ketchup

2 tsp dark sesame oil

1 tsp tomato paste

To finish the dish:

2 tbsp peanut oil

1 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into 8 pieces

1 egg, well beaten

1 cup fresh cilantro leaves

4 slices thick-cut white bread (for toast triangles)

Bring large pot of salted water to a boil. Under cold running water, rinse crabs well (they should be lively), then cook for exactly 5 minutes, starting a timer the moment the water returns to a boil. Transfer crabs to a rack with a slotted spoon.

When they’re cool enough to handle, put the crabs on a cutting board. Using your thumb and forefinger, pull off the flap on the underside of each crab (pluck off any little gill bits too) and discard. Use a large chef’s knife to cut each body in half. Rinse the bodies under running water as you remove and discard entrails. Use back of your knife blade to gently crack the claws. Transfer to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

To finish, heat peanut oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic-ginger paste and cook, stirring, until aromatic, about 3 minutes. Add sriracha liquid and bring to boil. Remove pan from heat and stir to release some of the heat. Wait another 30 seconds and add butter, piece by piece, stirring constantly. Slowly drizzle beaten egg into pan, whisking constantly to incorporate smoothly. The chili sauce should be thick but pourable, like gravy.

Add crabs to chili sauce and toss until well coated. Divide crabs into four serving bowls. Top with steaming chili sauce and a handful of cilantro leaves; serve with toast triangles for soaking up the sauce. Serves 4.

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