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May 1, 2014

Steamed Mud Crabs (Halabos na Alimango)

Crabs is a family favorite. When we have it for family meals, it’s usually served by the platter. Each person will eat at least two whole crabs, though some will have a platter all to themselves. We usually eat bakla crabs, which have a combination of creamy white fat and orange yellow fat. Most of the time, we eat mud crabs (colloquially known as alimango) for our lunches as they are more affordable than the tastier sea crabs (known as alimasag).

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We went to Hong Kong last December for my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary. Mom, my brother Brian, and I, came across stalls with crabs displayed prominently in glass cases. We found out these were hairy crabs, a winter delicacy for the Chinese. Since we didn’t have a kitchen where we were staying, we asked if they could cook them for us. The seller agreed, and even provided us with black vinegar sauce to accompany them. We quickly rushed back to our hotel room to eat them. We laid out newspapers over the coffee table and reverently placed the crabs in the middle. Those were the tastiest crabs we had! There wasn’t too much fat in them, but the flesh was sweet and tender. Cracking open the claws was a challenge, since we didn’t have anything hard enough to crack them open. We finally resorted to using the door jamb as a makeshift cracker.

The number of crabs depends on how many people you are serving. As crabs come in different sizes, you generally want 200-400 grams of fresh crab per person. A kilo of crab will serve 3-5 people, depending on their appetites, and if you have other dishes prepared.

When cooking female or bakla crabs, it is important to make sure the crabs are cooked correctly. Overcooking the crabs will harden the roe and make its texture unpalatable.

How to Choose Mud Crabs

Choose crabs first based on what kind of meat and fat you want. Male crabs are generally the meatiest and have the least amount of fat. Mature females have orange fat which are actually the eggs or roe. The roe is heavy and thick. Bakla crabs are a misnomer. They are actually immature females. My family loves to eat bakla crabs though, as it has the best combination of fat and tender meat.

To determine if the crab is male, mature female, or immature female (bakla), you need to look at the under plate or “apron” of the crab. Turn the crab over, and check the shape of the under plate. A triangular shape is male, a round shape is female, while a shape in-between round and triangular is an immature female. An immature female will be less round and the under plate is not as large as a female’s. The way my Mom used to explain it to me, an immature female’s apron looks alaganin, or not-quite-female, and not quite male. For a more scientific explanation, you can check research from Australia’s Northern Territory Government.

When choosing a crab, you generally want it heavy for its size. Bigger is not always better. You want them meaty, or what is colloquially described as siksik. If you want a female crab with roe, you will need to use a blunt object to look in between the carapace (or top of the crab) and the under plate. You can use a blunt knife or a spoon to take a peek. If you see a bit of orange, the crab is bursting with roe.

Make sure the crab has all its legs and is moving when you buy it. Some crabs have incomplete legs. You generally want to stay away from those, as they were damaged during transit. Also, make sure the crab has both its front legs or claws. Some vendors take one leg of the crab to sell as crab claws.

Preparing Crabs

As soon as you get home, you want to prepare the crabs. Check that all crabs are still alive. Discard any dead ones as they can cause food poisoning.

Holding the end of the crab away from the claws, brush the crab under running water to remove any mud and moss from them. If you want to steam them whole, that’s all you need to do.

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If you want a better eating experience, you’ll need to remove the gills and mouth parts. There are two ways to do this: The whole crab style only removes the gills. The half-crab style removes both the gills and mouth parts. Personally, I like it done half-crab style. It’s cleaner and tastier.

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Some people may be squeamish about gutting and cooking a live crab. If you wish to humanely kill the crab before preparing it, get all the live crabs and store them in the freezer for up to 1 hour prior to continuing with the recipe.

Whole Crab Style

  1. Get a steamer. Place the top level of the steamer near your prep area to immediately transfer cleaned crab to it.
  2. Peel and slice ginger into rounds.
  3. Prepare a chopping board on a wooden, raw smooth cement, or steel surface. Avoid placing the chopping board on formica, granite, or tile because the next instructions will damage these surfaces.
  4. Hold the crab on the butt end away from the claws. Turn crab over to that you see the under plate or apron with the claws facing away from you. Place the crab on a chopping board. Use a knife and slide it under the apron to separate it from the under portion of the crab. You should be able to point the apron towards you. Remove the apron from the crab by cutting it away with a knife, a cleaver, or a pair of scissors.
  5. Chop off the flat portion of the legs.
  6. Separate the carapace (top part of the crab) from the leg and abdomen portion. You can use a knife by sliding it into the seam between the carapace and the abdomen, then twisting the knife to separate the carapace.  You will see a feathery structure on the abdomen portion. Those are its gills. You will need to remove them as they are inedible. Scrape them off using a knife, or pull them off using your fingers.
  7. Rinse off with abdomen with running water to remove any dirt left by the gills.
  8. Place a round of ginger into the carapace.
  9. Gently place the carapace back on the crab how it was originally connected. Remove any twine holding the claws in place.
  10.  Place the cleaned crab on the steamer tray. The crab should lie flat, with its carapace on top.
  11.  Repeat Steps 4-10 until all crabs are cleaned.

Half-Crab Style

  1. Get a steamer. Place the top level of the steamer near your prep area to immediately transfer cleaned crab to it.
  2. Peel and slice ginger into rounds.
  3. Prepare a chopping board on a wooden, raw smooth cement, or steel surface. Avoid placing the chopping board on formica, granite, or tile because the next instructions will damage these surfaces.
  4. Hold the crab on the butt end away from the claws. Turn crab over to that you see the under plate or apron with the claws facing away from you. Place the crab on a chopping board. Use a knife and slide it under the apron to separate it from the under portion of the crab. You should be able to point the apron towards you. Remove the apron from the crab by cutting it away with a knife, a cleaver, or a pair of scissors.
  5. The crab will have a dividing mark in the center. Use it to line up a cleaver. Keep the cleaver on the dividing mark. Using a rubber mallet or a heavy piece of wood, pound the cleaver until the crab is divided into two.
  6. Not all of the leg has meat. Chop off the flat portion of the legs.
  7. Get ½ of the crab. At the mouth of the crab, there will be a sac. Remove the mouth parts and the sac with your fingers. Rinse the crab under running water to remove any dirt released from the sac.
  8. Separate the carapace (top part of the crab) from the leg and abdomen portion. You will see a feathery structure. Those are its gills. You will need to remove them as they are inedible. Scrape them off using a knife. Gently place the carapace back on the crab how it was originally connected. Remove any twine holding the claws in place.
  9. Place the cleaned crab on the steamer tray. You want the crab vertical, with the sliced side of the crab facing upwards. Place a round of ginger on top of the crab.
  10.  Repeat Steps 7-9 for the other half of the crab.
  11.  Repeat Steps 4-10 until all crabs are cleaned.

Cooking the Crabs

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  1. Fill the bottom half of the steamer with at least 2 inches of water. Place the steamer bottom over medium heat and cover. Allow the water to boil.
  2. Place the steamer tray filled with crabs over the bottom half of the steamer. Cover.
  3. Cook crabs for 15 minutes.
  4. Remove crabs from heat. Check if they are cooked by pulling a leg off one of the crabs. If it looks shiny, it’s undercooked. If needed, place back on steamer for an additional minute.
  5. Transfer crabs to a serving tray.
  6. Serve and enjoy!

Each person has a favorite sauce to go with their steamed crabs. Here are two sauces I like to prepare with them:

Garlic Vinegar Sauce Ingredients

  •   3 cloves garlic
  •   ½ cup white vinegar
  •   salt to taste, start with ½ teaspoon
  •   pepper to taste, start with ½ teaspoon

Garlic Vinegar Sauce Procedure

  1. Peel garlic and mince.
  2. Measure out vinegar into a bowl. Add garlic.
  3. Add salt and pepper. Mix well.
  4. Taste. Add more salt and pepper if desired. Make sure to mix well after each addition.

Black Vinegar Sauce Ingredients

  •   ½ cup Chinese black vinegar
  •   white sugar to taste, start with 1 tablespoon

Black Vinegar Sauce Procedure

  1. Get a small saucepan. Add black vinegar.
  2. Add sugar.
  3. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally to make sure sugar is completely dissolved.
  4. Taste. Add more sugar if desired. Make sure to mix well after each addition.
  5. Remove from heat. Transfer to a serving bowl.

Photos by Louise Hagedorn/ Select photos by Rica Palomo-Espiritu

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