Thanks to a good friend and a Tony Bourdain episode, Drew and I had one of the best meals of our lives at Thi Nhan in Hoi An, Vietnam. Sweet Tamarind Crab is relativity easy to make but it's the freshness of the crab that makes the dish. Thi Nhan is just steps away from the beach and each morning the fish market is flooded with fresh crab.
It's a messy meal but so incredibly worth it. They serve the crabs with a mixture of lemon juice with a TON of sea salt and ground pepper. Sounds a little overwhelming? It is when you taste it on its own but with the crab it is DY-NO-MITE. If we had stayed an extra day in Hoi An we would have eaten there twice - without question.
Sweet Tamarind Crab (cua rang me)
Makes 8 servings
3 tablespoons canola oil
3 shallots, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tamarind paste
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional), torn in half
2 teaspoons chili garlic sauce
3 tablespoons soy sauce (or fish sauce)
2 tablespoons palm sugar (or granulated sugar)
2 teaspoons fresh ginger (see tips)
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup Thai basil leaves
2 teaspoons white pepper, freshly ground
juice of 3 limes, + extra for serving
Clean the crabs, brush and rinse thoroughly. Separate the 2 main claws from each crab. Set aside.
Remove and discard the abdominal flaps (the triangle-shaped tail). Lift and separate the back-fin with the rest of the claws by placing a large tablespoon at the bottom of the crab. Remove and discard the "lungs" (also known as Devil's fingers; they have a spongy texture); they're inedible. Gather the liquid, crab "butter" and corals from the inside of the crabs in a bowl. Discard the main shells.
Using a cleaver, cut the back-fins in half and slightly crack the claws. Gather the pieces of crab in a large mixing bowl. Add the garlic powder, salt and 1 teaspoon of pepper. Toss well. Marinate for at least 15 minutes.
In the same bowl containing the crab liquid, combine the kaffir lime leaves (if used), 1 teaspoon of ginger, sugar, soy sauce (or fish sauce) and tamarind paste.
Slightly bruise the basil leaves and coarsely chop them.
In a wok, heat the oil. Add the shallots and ginger and cook until slightly golden and fragrant. Add the garlic. As soon as the garlic is lightly browned, add the crab pieces. Jiggle the wok to make sure the crab does not stick to the bottom of the wok and is totally coated with oil. Add the tamarind mixture. Constantly toss the crab to ensure each piece is coated with the sauce. As soon as all the liquid is evaporated, add the chili garlic sauce. Toss for 30 seconds and add ½ to one cup of water and about 2 tablespoons of basil leaves. Cover and cook for about 8-10 minutes, stirring often. The crab meat should be white and opaque and the liquid should be evaporated as well. Do not over-cook the crab; otherwise the meat will be dry! Un-cover and add the remaining basil leaves and the lemon juice. Toss the crab and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Adjust the seasoning. Season with more salt (if necessary) and pepper; it should balance the sour taste of the tamarind paste and the sweetness from the palm sugar and shallots. Remove and discard the kaffir lime leaves.
Transfer to a large platter. Serve with little dipping bowls filled with lime juice, chili salt (or regular salt) and pepper.