One of my best food memories from childhood was a soup usually served in the summertime—a simple fish broth infused with a garden’s worth of cilantro. In Chinese culture, soup is always consumed for either general health or a specific medical purpose. Cilantro has many health benefits, including lowering blood sugar, protecting against infections, and improving digestion. The fresh perfume of this herb was front and center, commanding attention for the soup. It also enhanced the sweetness of the fish. With this soup and other dishes, I developed my love cilantro and use it in cooking and even in cocktails whenever I can.
My attraction to crustaceans also developed in childhood: the sweetness of shrimp, the succulent flesh of lobster, and the ocean freshness of crab. I have fond memories of grocery shopping with Mom at the bustling late afternoon live market to purchase fish and seafood, where everything was still swimming in tanks or at least had never been frozen. The farmers also brought their produce every day. Unlike most of the farmer’s markets in the U.S., the Hong Kong markets operate twice a day, mid-morning and late afternoon, in every busy neighborhood as a city block filled with very basic concrete stalls and canvas tents. You could probably only get fresher ingredients sitting on a boat netting your own catch or picking your own produce on a farm.
That was the common way of life in Hong Kong before the invasion of supermarkets and one-stop shopping for food that was packaged and processed or long dead and frozen. Because of new health codes, the old markets started to fade away. After much struggle, the government eventually built large full-block multi-level buildings in selected neighborhoods to house the upgraded stands of farmers and fishmongers. The stands are a lot cleaner now, but they maintain the frenzied energy that just screams farm-to-table and ocean-to-table. Every time M and I visit my family, we go with my Mom to shop for these markets. To her it’s everyday shopping, and she doesn’t quite understand our fascination—To us, it an adventure.
Another memorable childhood revelation came when I was about 12. Late fall is the season for Hairy Crabs (Chinese Mitten Crabs), which get their name from having a patch of dark bristles on their claws. The female roe is a famous delicacy. This crab isn’t known for its meatiness, but the roe exemplifies how fresh crab should taste.
Besides my Mom, her energetic sister, my Yi-Ma or “auntie,” has this penchant for searching out tasty seasonal local food. One weeknight after our routine dinner, she arrived unexpectedly. She only came late hours during the week when there was urgent business. In this case, the urgent business was a basketful of hairy crabs. By the time she settled in the den where we had relaxed after dinner, she had already dropped off the crabs in the kitchen for steaming.
We all gathered around the dining table once again, and we all got down to loud shell cracking, dipping the crab into black vinegar, and creating a messy pile of empty shells. This experience marked the beginning of my love for crab. It’s hard to get fresh crabs all the time unless you are by the sea or dining at a Chinese Seafood Restaurant. So most of the time now, I turn to crab cakes to satisfy my craving. I love them all except when they have more breading than crab meat.
This recipe for Spicy Crab Cakes combines lots of cilantro, scallions and a few other Asian flavors to balance the sweet flesh of the crab. The coconut milk adds richness, but it’s hardly detectable. The spiciness of chili garlic sauce can be adjusted to your taste, but I highly recommend you use at least a dab. The spiciness opens up your palette with an updated version of old memories, a kind of double happiness.
Spicy Crab Cakes
recipe by hungryrabbit
make 18 crabcakes
1 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced
3/4 cups scallions, green and white parts, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon Chili Garlic Sauce
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2/3 cups unsweetened coconut milk
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 pound fresh lump crabmeat, picked over and pat dried of any liquid
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
Cucumber Vinaigrette for serving (recipe to follow)
1. In a large bowl, add cilantro, ginger, scallions, chili sauce, salt, coconut milk, bread crumbs and egg. Stir well to combine. Refrigerate mixture for 30-60 minutes.
2. Add crab meat and gently fold into the mixture, careful not to break up the beautiful lumps.
3. To shape the crab cakes, dip a 1/3-cup measuring cup into ice water and shake off excess. Pack crab mixture into measuring cup and level off with off-set spatula or wet fingers. Turn measuring cup upside down and give it a whack on your palm to release crab cake. Place crab cakes on parchment line tray. Repeat with remaining crab mixture to form cakes. Cover crab cakes with plastic wrap and freeze for 30 minutes.
4. Heat 2 tablespoon of oil in a large skillet on medium heat until you see whisp of smoke. Add half of the crabcakes into pan, start from the edge and leave about 1-inch between each crab cakes. Sear crab cakes until golden, about 3-4 minutes, this will be your presentation side. Flip cakes carefully and sear the second side until cooked through, about 2 minutes. (Do not over cook or crab will get rubbery) Remove cakes to paper-lined tray and tent with foil.
5. Wipe skillet with paper towel to rid of burn bits. Repeat Step 4 with the remaining crab cakes. Serve immediately.
Cucumber Vinaigretterecipe by hungryrabbitnyc, 2010
make 1 cups
1 English cucumber, chopped (about 1-1/2 cups)
8 large fresh mint leaves
1 tablespoon cilantro
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grape seed oil or any neutral oil
1. Add cucumber and 1 teaspoon kosher salt in a colander, toss to combine. Let sit for 15-30 minutes. Shake off extracted liquid.
2. In a blender add cucumber, mint, cilantro, lime juice, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. Blend on high speed until nearly smooth. Scape down sides of blender if necessary. With blender running, slowly drizzle oil in a thin stream, process until vinaigrette is emulsified. Adjust seasoning as necessary.
3. Strain the vinaigrette if you want a smooth texture. Use immediately or press a piece of plastic wrap directly on top of the surface and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature and whisk slightly before serving.