Singaporeans have stitched up the mud crab in popular imagination, with their chilli mud crab. Less known but just as delicious is the black pepper crab. Again, the recipe is from Singapore. I prefer the black pepper crab. I find the flavours more complex, and the whole thing less sweet.
Because of the price of mud crab, it can be quite an investment to cook this. It also requires quite a degree of effort from guests, to crack and slurp their way through the legs and claws. A cheaper option would be to use large blue swimmer crabs, but they are less flavourful and less robust.
At the market, I look for more responsive and more agile crabs, simply because they are likely fresher. Once home, I place them in the freezer for a few hours to put them to sleep.
Once asleep, remove the abdominal flap of the crab. At this point, some people insert a chopstick or skewer backwards into the brain. From here, the upper shell or carapace can be removed and the grey gills pulled out and discarded. Then, using a cleaver, the crab can be cut straight in half, pushing the knife down between the claws and through the crab’s back. I then remove the claws and cut each remaining half into three even-sized sections, radiating from what would once have been the middle of the crab. This all takes a little force. It is not dainty work. But it is the only really challenging part of the recipe, and it is worth it.
Other than the black pepper sauce, the final key flavour here is the addition of fresh curry leaves. These can be found in most good fruit and vegetable shops, or at Asian groceries. The curry leaves are delicious fresh in this recipe. Otherwise, they can be used fried as a garnish to a dish.
Black pepper crab
– 1 live mud crab
– 1 cup vegetable oil
– ½ cup fresh curry leaves
– 3 tbsp butter
– black pepper sauce (recipe below)
– 2 tbsp light soy sauce
Black pepper sauce
– 2 red shallots, finely chopped
– 2cm piece ginger, finely chopped
– 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
– 2 tbsp grapeseed oil
– 1 long red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
– 2 tsp black peppercorns, roughly crushed
– 2 tsp sugar
– 2 tsp sweet soy sauce
– 2 tsp light soy sauce
– 1½ tsp rice wine vinegar
To make the pepper sauce, gently sauté the shallots, ginger and garlic in the grapeseed oil for three to four minutes until aromatic and lightly coloured. Add the chilli and black pepper and continue to cook for a further two minutes. Add the sugar and the sweet and light soy sauces and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Once cool, stir in the rice vinegar. Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days.
Before preparing the crab, put it into the freezer for 20 minutes to put it to sleep.
Pull off the abdominal flap, also called the “apron”, on the underside of the crab. Next, grab the bottom end of the shell in one hand, the body in the other, and pull them apart. Cut off the spongy brown gills on the inside of the crab and rinse away the greenish-brown guts. Twist off the large front claws and cut the body into quarters. Using the back of a heavy cleaver, make a crack in the shell of the larger claws without smashing the flesh inside. This speeds up the cooking of the meat and allows some sauce to seep in.
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the vegetable oil to about 170ºC and deep-fry half of the curry leaves until crisp and bright green. This happens in a matter of seconds, so have a slotted spoon or “spider” at hand to lift them out of the oil. Drain the leaves on paper towel and place aside until needed.
Melt the butter in a large wok or pot and fry the crab pieces for five minutes. Add the black pepper sauce, the remaining curry leaves and two tablespoons of water to the wok and keep frying and stirring for five minutes more. Check the crab is cooked – if it needs more cooking, add one tablespoon of water, cover the wok with a lid and simmer for a few more minutes.
Stir through the soy sauce then tip the crab into a serving dish and top with the fried curry leaves.
2015 De Bortoli gamay noir, Vinoque Roundstone Vineyard, Yarra Valley ($25)
– Leanne Altmann, wine buyer for Supernormal and Meatsmith
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Black pepper crab". Subscribe here.