Singaporean Cuisine: Black Pepper Crab

As noted in our post on Hainanese chicken rice, Singaporeans love the inexpensive, fresh foods available at their local food courts.  Rice and noodle bowls, soups, fried rice, Indian curries and flatbreads, and savory pastries are very popular quick meals that are widely available.  When a Singaporean wants to sit down somewhere a little nicer to eat, though, stir-fried crab is one of the most popular choices.

More Singaporean dishes on The World Cup of Food:

Crab stir-fries are probably Chinese or Malaysian in origin, but Singaporean chefs have embraced them as their own.  Live crabs are cut into sections and stir-fried in a sauce.   Since the crab shells get in the way a little, the sauce only mildly flavors the crab, which is removed from the shell and eaten by hand.  Two varieties are common.  The first, chili crab, is stir fried in a sweet sauce made from tomatoes and red chilies.  The second, black pepper crab (recipe follows), is cooked in a fiery-hot paste made from crushed black peppercorns, ginger, and garlic.

Black pepper crab

adapted from Cradle of Flavor: Home Cooking from the Spice Islands of Indonesia, Singapore, and Malaysia by James Oseland

For the flavoring paste:

  • 2 Tbs black peppercorns
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 piece fresh ginger, 1 1/2″ long, peeled and sliced thinly
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp salt

For everything else:

  • 1 live Dungeness crab (cooked crab would be an acceptable, if lesser, substitute)
  • 2 Tbs vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup water

Before we proceed, it is important to note that a Singaporean stir-fried crab is made from fresh, live crab.  That live crab needs to be killed and cut into pieces with a knife.  We did that, photographed the process, and are posting those images below.  We feel that the images are informative and integral to the preparation of black pepper crab.  For the squeamish, this is your fair warning.

Before dispatching our crab, we put him in the refrigerator in a paper bag for about twenty minutes.  The cold temperature makes the crab more docile and the kill much more humane.  While the crab was chilling, and since we wanted to minimize the time between cleaning the crab and cooking, we made the flavoring paste starting with the peppercorns:

blackpepper

We knew we didn’t need anything near as fine as what comes out of the bottom of our pepper mill, so we settled on a relatively even, coarse texture where every peppercorn was crushed at least a little:

crushedblackpepper

Next the garlic, ginger, and turmeric were added:

garlicgingeradded

…and pulverized into a rough paste:

blackpepperpaste
By this point Chris’s hand was pretty tired; we wouldn’t think any less of anyone that used an electric spice grinder for this.

Now that the paste was ready, we were faced with the task of killing our crab.  In a report issued by The Humane Society of the United States (.pdf reader required to view), it is recommended that a crab be killed by quickly stabbing through nerve centers located in the lower abdomen and near the eyes.  If done correctly, this causes the crab considerably less pain than either boiling it alive or simply cutting it down the center.

To kill our crab it was first laid on its back on a cutting board.  Our first cut was through the abdomen, holding the knife point crosswise over the lower third of the crab:

killingthecrab

With a quick thrust the knife was pushed all the way through.  The knife was difficult to remove, and the crab very much still alive.  We sized up as quickly as we could the next cut, this time through the head area:

finishingthecrab
The blurry claws are not the result of poor photography; this guy was trying to fight us off with its last moments.

The cut was made much like the first and at least according to the Humane Society, our crab was dead.  Freshly killed crabs do not act as “dead” as you might expect.  Nerves through the limbs of the crab fire more or less randomly, causing some unsettling flailing that can last for a few minutes, even after we cut the crab in half for cleaning:

splittingthecrab
The movement didn’t stop here; even once the crab was cut into serving pieces the claws pieces would bend and clamp if tapped firmly with the back of a knife.

The lengthwise cut could not penetrate the upper shell, or carapace, of the crab but was enough that it was easily split by hand into two pieces once the carapace was removed.  The gills and internal organs were removed and discarded and the crab was cut into smaller pieces for stir-frying: the claws and the two largest legs on each side were removed as separate pieces, and the smaller last two legs were kept together.  Each piece was kept attached to the adjoining body meat, which is one of the flakiest, tastiest parts of a crab.  The cut pieces were refrigerated to keep as fresh as possible until ready for the pan.

Once we had our crab cleaned and cut, the oil was heated for stir-frying in a large Dutch oven over medium-low heat.  Once hot, the flavoring paste was added:

cookingthepepperpaste

…and cooked until the ginger and garlic no longer smelled raw and the paste had become saturated with the oil, about six minutes:

pastecooked

At long last we were ready to cook some crab!  It was added to the pepper paste and oil with the water and the heat was increased to medium-high:

crabadded

The crab was stirred constantly as it cooked, taking on as much peppercorn flavor as possible.  After two minutes it was starting to change color, so we knew it didn’t have much longer to go:

crabhalfwaycooked

After another four minutes, six minutes of total cooking time, the sauce had thickened and the crab was cooked through, ready to eat.  The black pepper crab was served immediately with a couple of plates and bowls nearby for discarded shells:

blackpeppercrab

Put simply, this is maybe the best crab preparation either of us has ever tried.  Boiled crab loses a lot of flavor to the water, but the stir-fried way preserves the precious crabbiness almost completely.  We didn’t pay black pepper enough respect when we ate this; ordinarily we put black pepper on just about everything we eat and don’t really acknowledge how pungent and spicy it can be, but this much pepper was HOT!  We definitely recommend a thorough hand-washing after eating this dish to prevent any residue form lingering on the fingers and ending up elsewhere.  This was a lot more work than just picking up frozen, cooked crab from the seafood counter, but the effort was rewarded.

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