Crab feast and Thai seafood sauce

Crabfeast

It took me a good long while before I got over my silly fear and tried dungeness crabs.  No, no I wasn't afraid of eating crabs.  I spent every summer of my childhood in Hua Hin on a diet composed almost entirely of crabs and prawns – in fact I'm rather surprised I haven't developed an exoskeleton by now. 

My fear was of pre-cooked crabs, actually.  In Thailand – ok, perhaps not the entire country but at least my family – we never ate dead crabs.  No, we don't eat crabs while they are alive – I only meant we don't eat crabs that had been dead before they were cooked.  If you go to wet markets in Thailand, you won't find a lot of dead crabs for sale.  You will, on the other hand, find crates of still alive (and sometimes crawling) crabs for shoppers to buy and take home to cook.  This is understandable, I suppose.  Dead crabs deteriorate quickly in the tropical heat, by the time you get them home their flesh have broken down into nothing but fishy, smelly mush – we say it's "gone back to sea" in Thai. 

This proved a bit of a predicament for my buddhist "kitchen mother" (that's how household cooks are referred to in Thai).  I still remember her sitting on the floor over a wooden chopping board with an ill-fated crab on top, her eyes closed, one hand in a half namaste while the other holding a sharp cleaver high over her head, her lips moving, quietly (and rapidly) reciting a pray begging the crab's forgiveness before quickly lowering the heavy cleaver to sever the crab in half.  Saturday Night Live can't make that skit up. 

Anyway, that's a rather long-winded way to explain why it took me a good many years to try one of the Bay Area's local specialties, the Dungeness crabs.  And now, when the season is high and the crabs sweet, they are one of my favorite things to eat, especially when dipped into spicy, garlickyThai seafood sauce.  Every time we have a crab feast, I make this sauce for myself and make sure there's drawn butter and even cocktail sauce for others.  But then everyone ends up stealing my sauce and I have to get back to the mortar and make more.  Luckily it's so easy, you hardly need a recipe.

The ingredients are garlic, Thai chilli, palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce. The sauce is spicy, with a strong flavor of garlic and a good acidic zing from the lime and a salty and savory flavor from the fish sauce.  In Thailand we use this as a generic sauce for just about any kind of seafood imaginable, crabs, prawns, oysters, fish, anything you get from the sea you can dip into this sauce. 

It's difficult to give precise measurements for the ingredients, and you will need to change them to fit your own taste anyway, so I'll just tell you how I make it.  To make about a little less than a cup of sauce, enough for 2-4 people, I start with 2-3 cloves of garlic and 2-3 spicy Thai bird's eye chilli.  (You can use a bit less now if you're afraid, you can always add more later.)  Pound them together, not too finely, just roughly.  Then I add about a small handful of palm sugar.  Pound again to crush the chunky palm sugar into a fine paste.  Grab two limes, cut each in half and juice them right into the mortar.  Grab the pestle and stir everything well together with it.  Now add the fish sauce, start with 2-3 tablespoon's worth and work your way up.  Now taste it.  Add a bit more sugar if it's too spicy.  A bit more fish sauce if too lime-y.  Juice a bit more lime into it if you were a little heavy handed with the fish sauce.  If you want it to be more garlicky or spicier, transfer the sauce from the mortar into a bowl, then pound more garlic or chilli (or both) in the mortar and spoon out the content into the bowl.  Don't add whole garlic or chilli into the mortar filled with the sauce, you'll be cleaning fish sauce from your ceiling for days to come.

My sauce leads with the spiciness, then follow with the acidity of the lime, then the salty fishsauce, and with just a tiny bit of sweetness at the end.  You can make yours taste however you like it. 

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  • Ann

    I just e-mailed and referred my dad to your blog, praising your writing etc. I then checked back here to find your new post and two typos in the first paragraph! =)

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    Very funny. One, actually, an extra p, duly deleted. ;-)

  • Greg

    Egad! Sauce!? Why get a fresh, delicious marvel like Dungeness crab and then obscure the sweet, delicate flavor with a bold and zesty sauce? Even cocktail sauce is an abomination. You might as well eat crab out of a can.
    Greg
    from the shores of Puget Sound

  • http://profile.typepad.com/1219738586s26857 Gastroanthropologist

    I have similar memories with my mother and grandmother about crabs. Your newspapers reminded me of how we ate them. My mother covered the kitchen floor with newspapers and we sat right on the floor, picking, chewing, and spitting crab wherever we pleased as soon as they came out of the pot.

  • Nat

    I love it when you write things about Thailand. It brings back my childhood memory. Most of your photos are great, too. It looks like I’m going to have to buy some crab for my seafood Friday night. Unfortunately, my local shop only has dead blue swimmers but that will do me while I’m not in Thailand. I remember one time when I visited my family and I really wanted to have some crabs. Mum could only find dead ones and she bought them for me in hope it might be any good. To my Aussie standard, it was ‘alright’. However, according to my mum’s Thai standard, she said it was off and threw them all to the bin while I was starting to enjoy it!!!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    I guess it’s cultural difference, Thai people like spicy sauce with everything. That’s why I always start out making this sauce just for me – you can take a girl out of Bangkok.. – but for some reason no one else seems to mind, not the least the two Manresa cooks (plus the chef) at table last night. That sauce was the first to disappear and I had to make another batch. Variety is a spice of life, no?
    I do, however, draw the line at tinned crab. Ugh.

  • http://watkinslynn.typepad.com/pages_pucks_and_pantry/ Mrs. L

    This time of year it is really all about dungeness crabs. We’re headed to a crab feed tomorrow night, but alas, I don’t think the sauce will be anywhere near as good as what I think this would taste like.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/miz_ginevra Ginevra

    Your TypePad Connect photo looks fabulous. ;) I’m so glad you’re liking the new comment system.

  • http://bring-your-appetite.blogspot.com Jessica @ Bring Your Appetite

    Oh, you really have me wanting crab now. I live in Seattle, so I guess I have no excuse to NOT have Dungeness crab, eh? I’ll definitely have to give your sauce a try–sounds wonderful.

  • http://www.isabellemazzoni.com Isabelle Mazzoni

    My favorite way to eat crab is with Ponzu sauce, thanks to Chef Tetsuo and his wife Junko for teaching me this surprising but soooo delicious Japanese trick.
    First, you have to remove the head-part of the crab by turning it up side down (legs up), pull hard on all the legs at once. Then use the head as a recipient and pour in a good 1/2 cup of ponzu sauce. With a spoon, mix the ponzu sauce with what’s left in the head, add a teaspoon of fresh grated ginger (if you have a zest of yuzu lemon) and pour the mixture in a bowl. Then just feast on your crab dipping the meat in the ponzu mixture. Trust me, sounds weird but it’s so good you’ll never eat crab another way!!!
    At the end of our feast Junko always put a bit of sake in the dipping bowl and I slurp it down as I was taught to do. This is a pure foodgasm!!
    Bon Appetit!
    One bite at a time! http://www.isabellemazzoni.com

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    This sounds great, I might have to try of at the next crab feast.
    Sent from my iPhone

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    Thank you, yours is not so bad either. Yes, I love the new system, a few kinks I see but nothing major, and a huge improvement from what was there before. I love it.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    Thank you. I’d be right there with your mum, in the bin they go!

  • http://www.practicallydone.com helen

    Oh, Pim, thank goodness! This sounds like my kind of sauce. I’d rather eat my crab plain than with drawn butter, if those are my only two choices.

  • http://www.dernieremiette.com Emily (La Derniere Miette)

    The woman beside me at the market yesterday was buying live crab, and I have to admit that I was unsure of taking a live one home in the basket of my velib, lest it begin to crawl out during the journey home! But given this sauce, and Isabelle’s ponzu recipe, I might just have to get over my fear too.

  • http://www.gourmet-chick.com Gourmet Chick

    The sauce sounds fabulous Pim and I know that you have described it here in relation to pre-cooked crabs but do you have any tips for actually cooking the crab?

  • http://www.pigpigscorner.com pigpigscorner

    A diet of craba and prawns sounds awesome! It’s so hard to find live crabs here. Miss those back home.

  • http://whatilikenyc.blogspot.com Laura

    I feel that I will end up making this sauce and putting it on just about everything. Such a fan of crab with spicy sauce… bet this would be fantastic with fried soft shell crabs…

  • kazimoto

    Nice post, Pim. Reminded me of my childhood years growing up in Thialand. Our family used to go to Hua Hin as well, and yes, loads of fresh crab and king prawn were consumed! God, I miss it!

  • Sarah

    How funny, I was in Hua Hin over the summer and we had crab almost every single day with this sauce and it was amazing!
    BTW, have been into Lulu’s a few times and bought some of your pastries – keep it up please! It’s so hard to find a coffee place with decent snacks in this town!

  • http://balancefood.blogspot.com Chou

    I can relate to your kitchen mother. Finding yourself face to face with one creatures death to sustain your own life is an interesting dilemma. I have not yet reconciled myself to the paradox living within my own life!

  • Jimmy-in-Seattle

    Pimster…Hmmmm. You’ve got crabs huh? lol Up here in Washington we have a city by the name of Dungeness. I bet you would like it……..That was a great read! Good writing. Actually showing some of your wit and charm. Bravo. Well done.
    The photo of garbage and a messy, sloppy sauce-bowl – well, that’s another ‘story.’ Geeeeeze, such a toe-curler.

  • http://www.meieats.com Mei

    pim, i always crave this ‘naam jim ta lae’ when i go back to thailand but i’ve never gotten the sauce down pat some how. it tasted like it would have all the ingredients you mentioned but probably with coriander leaves and shallots. still, i feel that there could be an ingredient missing. any ideas?

  • Shanti

    Mei
    I wonder if the “missing” ingredient could be coriander root that is pounded? I make a seafood dipping sauce called Poo Neung. There are somany wonderful Dipping Sauces in Thailand. I have maybe 3 dozen different ones I have learned in various regions of Thailand over the last 20+ years.
    We just ate Dungeness last night. Purchased live crabs 2 1/4# each at Le Asia from live tabnks. So sweet and wonderful-just caught that morning. I think my favourite is curried crab ala Somboon in BKK. Amazing!

  • shanti

    Opps sorry for typos!
    Pim
    What is the name of this yummy spicy sauce you made? I am going to make some for today’s lunch-more Dungeness crab.
    Also there is a “sausage” that I am in love with that an old lady makes in Hua Hin for one of the restaurants. She is so cute-she comes in early in the mornings and makes this speciality of hers.
    It has a dried tofu skin/casing and is filled with pork loin mince and crab with Chinese 5 spice. It is first sauteed in hot oil maybe 300 deg F then the fire is turned up to 375 deg F for finishing they deep fry in hot oil in a banana leaf held by toothpicks.
    The cooking is a two step process, as they also grill it after deep frying. It is served with fresh pineapple wedges, slices of tomato and cucumbers. I have the name in Thai only. Maybe Bing Koc but my writing was dreadful in my book :-) I am so crazy about it and want to make. We have access to most Thai ingredients and plenty of fresh seafood here in the SF Bay Area.
    TIA

  • Sheryl

    Cooking live crabs is quite easy (Pim, I’m surprised you haven’t tried, if you prefer really fresh seafood). You can either boil or steam them in a very large pot with the lid on. For 2-2.5 lb dungeness crabs, I use a ~10 qt. pot to cook 2 crabs, and it takes 15-20 minutes from when you drop the crabs into the boiling water.
    Major tips:
    1. Buy strong metal tongs BEFORE attempting this, and use it to handle the crabs both before and after they’re cooked. I once grabbed one bare-handed because we didn’t have tongs, and it ended up hanging from the skin between my thumb and index fingers.
    2. Put the live crabs in the fridge prior to cooking. Cold slows down crustaceans’ nervous systems, so they will be lethargic and easier to deal with when cold. Also, rumor has it that they feel the heat less, but who knows. Either way, the crabs die within a minute of being placed in the pot. Most people wait – and suffer – far longer.

  • http://kitchensidecar.blogspot.com katie

    i would imagine this sauce is good on any seafood. yums. seems a bit green papaya salad dressing.
    My mom always grills octopus and I am always trying haphazardly mix up a sauce to accompany it. Thank god you gave me some instruction. I was getting into the realm of just unappetizing. :)
    ps
    i <3 fish sauce.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    There’s endless variation on the theme of this sauce. Just experiment until you find one you like best.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    I don’t put coriander roots in this particular sauce, but that’s not to say you couldn’t.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    You’re talking about Hoi Jor. I love it too, I might try it soon and blog it. Stay tuned.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/pim Pim

    This will work with grilled octopus. I would add some cilantro roots to the mortar while pounding too. I have a feeling it’d be better with octopus that way.

  • Michelle Kim

    Hi Pim – I’m wondering about the spcy Thai birds eye chili? Is this a type of chili or a chili sauce? Do I need to go to the Thai market to find it? What does it look like? Also, can you sub regular sugar or do you really need palm sugar?
    I want to make crab for our v-day dinner and this sauce sounds perfect.
    Thanks!
    Michelle

  • http://pixieate.blogspot.com pixen

    Had a Crab Party once with friends LOL I ate almost 3 kg of steamed crabs! The guys hit it of with 5 kgs each! Then the hosts called up again for lunch the next day… for Black Pepper Crabs! I really don’t know how they hid the crabs… only place I haven’t checked was their bathroom! :-D

  • http://www.julianaloh.com/blog baobabs

    Your post reminded me of my childhood where my mom would also shut her eyes and kill the live crabs– only that she used a chopstick to pierce it through the triangular segment which I was led to believe is the heart. It was a bit of surgery, cleaning out and tearing apart the crab.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0111688fee10970c wendy

    I made this and think it is a delicious sauce.

  • http://marbleandholly.wordpress.com Claire Mason

    Wow! That sauce sounds awesome! Maybe not with crab (for me at least) but with prawns or other fish it sounds positively dreamy.
    I really used to have issues with fish sauce, but have grown quite a taste for it. Mm, I will need to try this out.

  • http://www.iFood.TV shantihhh

    That’s it Hoi Jor! I took photos of the lady making it in Hua Hin, and took some notes, but not ure if I can decipher my notes totally. I know she deep fried it twice. The dipping sauce was amazing and of course I haven’t a clue what was in it.
    I look forward to your solving this culinary puzzle. It is simply awesome! TIA

  • http://aromasysabores-heidileon.blogspot.com/ heidi leon

    “Don’t add whole garlic or chilli into the mortar filled with the sauce, you’ll be cleaning fish sauce from your ceiling for days to come.”..loved this vivid explanation on what not to do!!…love even more the story and the recipe.
    I can’t wait for summer! We’re going to Thailand! (a quick travel but anyways…wish me luck!)

  • kusalee

    The sweet meat of crab just gets even sweeter with the sauce. start with a small amount it will grow on you.

  • Bell

    Now, I’m craving for seafood ;]
    This makes me wants to go to Bang San [pattaya] and buys some grilled crabs and shrimps.
    …those were the days.

  • http://www.worldbusynews.com Steve

    Just let my wife into my little secreat and showed her your site and she hasnt been away from the PC for the last hour – looks like dinner going to be a treat:-)

  • http://readyto.wordpress.com/ RecipeOfTheWeek

    If I had to choose a food that to eat everyday, it would be crab w/o a doubt! My all time fave!

  • http://profile.typepad.com/6p0115701c1a04970b pantaloonfan

    Is it possible to use chili-garlic in this instead of fresh bird’s eye chilis? We are growing some at the moment, but getting them routinely in all seasons is a bit of a challenge… it would be easiest to either use dried or Sambal Olek, which I already have in the fridge :)

  • codysea

    I am addicted to this sauce! I had it with Pacific Northwest Dungeness crab and then went on to use it with grilled pork skewers and then grilled chicken thighs. I even snatched a spoonful or two straight by itself. Thanks for the recipe!

  • http://www.wikaniko-shop.co.uk john

    I like the sound of this recipe. I have very fond memories of eating freshly caught crab on the BBQ on the beach at Cornwall. I must try this sauce. Sounds lovely!

  • http://www.whiskthepantry.blogspot.com whiskthepantry

    hahaha I love your story. Same as my family, we don’t eat crabs that had been dead before they were cooked. Didn’t they say that if the crabs has been dead and their flesh disappear or something? I heard that from somewhere… The spicy sauce that you have is the best way to eat with! I miss that. It’s much more flavour compare to eating with butter here in north america hehehe :) Also, love you site ka!

  • http://www.gigglinggrapes.com Julia

    I’ve been looking for a nice Thai sauce for a long time. Thank you!

  • http://www.businesseducators.com/ executive training

    I don’t know that much about Thai food but this here looks so delicious I really feel like trying.

  • http://www.aamedya.com/ rüya tabirleri

    I just e-mailed and referred my dad to your blog, praising your writing etc
    I then checked back here to find your new post and two typos in the first paragraph!

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