My mom’s Vietnamese tamarind crabs pack a flavor punch with every morsel of sweet crab meat imbued with tang from the tamarind, heat from the bird’s eye chili, and umani from the fish sauce. This post was sponsored by Calphalon. All thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you for supporting the brands that make Beyond Sweet and Savory possible.
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and I have a whole line up of delicious recipes to share with you. For this wonderful occasion, I couldn’t be more excited to partner with Calphalon to bring you a special recipe that my mom has made for as long as I could remember, Vietnamese tamarind crabs, or cua rang me. My mom always makes this dish for very special occasions, especially a family birthday celebration, graduation, or engagement party. Imagine sweet crab meat imbued with a medley of flavors from the tamarind, bird’s eye chili, aromatics, and fish sauce.
- Tamarind: tamarind paste is made from sour, dark, sticky tamarind pods. Blocks of tamarind are regular shelf items at Indian and Asian grocery stores or online. For this recipe, you need to make tamarind water from the paste.
- Aromatics: the garlic, scallions, and shallots add a lot of flavor to the sauce. Don’t skip them.
- Fish sauce: use a quality fish sauce. Some of my favorite brands are Three Crabs, Flying Lion Premium Fish Sauce, and Red Boat Fish Sauce.
- Crabs: for this recipe I used live rock crabs from Tuna Dockside Harbor Market. You can also use stone crabs, blue swimmer crabs, or Dungeness crabs. Live crabs are much tastier than the prepackaged or frozen crabs. When choosing your crabs, pick ones that feel heavy, smell fresh, and relatively active.
How to Prepare the Crabs
Crabs can be killed in seconds via knives but require special techniques that fishmongers would be familiar with. If your fishmonger dispatched them, make sure to cook the crabs as soon as you get home or within 2 hours. To kill the crabs humanely, freeze them for 1 hour to stun their nervous system and put them to sleep before steaming them. Freezing them for an hour won’t affect the quality of the meat.
How Long to Steam the Crabs
After freezing the crabs for an hour, put them in a large pot for steaming. Pile them into the pot and let the bottom crabs boil slightly and act as a platform for the other crabs to steam. Cover and cook for 10 minutes for the smaller crabs and 15 minutes for the larger crabs. Once they’re cooked, you’ll see their color turn deep orange-red. Remove the crabs from the pot with tongs. Give them a rinse under cool water to clean all the debris off. Steaming allows the crabs to retain their tasty juices and keeps them from becoming water-logged compared with boiling.
How to Cook the Tamarind Crabs
For larger crabs like Dungeness, you’ll need to break the crabs into smaller pieces before cooking. Pull off and discard the triangular flap from the belly side. Turn the crab belly side down, pull from the rear end, lift the shell of the crab, pick off the gills and discard them. If you want to keep the shell for garnish, break the bony section (mouth) from the front end of the shell and discard. Clean it under running water and drain. Place the crab on its stomach and chop the crab into 4 pieces with a knife. With the back of the knife gently crack each claw - this makes it easier to extract the meat. Breaking the crabs into pieces allows the sauce to creep into all the crevices and the meat to pick up all the flavor during cooking.
As with most Vietnamese cooking, everything happens fast so have all your ingredients ready before you start. I like to get my wok really hot before adding the ingredients. Saute the scallion, shallot, and garlic until fragrant, moving them around to prevent burning. Add the crabs with peppercorns and cook for 3 three minutes before adding the tamarind sauce. With a large surface area, my Calphalon Premier™ Hard-Anodized Nonstick Wok can accommodate all the crabs. If you have a smaller wok, cook the crabs in batches.
Add the basil leaves and chilis and cook a few more minutes before removing the crabs and letting the sauce reduce to a thick consistency. With the wok’s superior nonstick-performance, 40% longer than Calphalon Classic™, and effortless food release, I don’t have to worry about the sauce sticking and burning. With years of expertise developing high performance cookware, Calphalon produces high quality cookware that are meant to last and helps making cooking more efficient and enjoyable. This wok is hands down one of my favorite pieces from the Calphalon Premier™ Nonstick Cookware Collection!
My mom’s Vietnamese tamarind crabs pack astonishing flavor and look as impressive as it tastes. The delicate and sweet crab meat melds with the heat from bird’s eye chilis, tang from tamarind, and umami from the fish sauce. Every time I eat this dish, the wonderful aromas and flavors transport me right back to my childhood. Grab a cold beer, some crackers, plenty of paper towels, and get ready to enjoy this classic Vietnamese crabby feast!
For more Vietnamese seafood inspiration, check these recipes: Vietnamese grilled razor clams, Vietnamese tamarind prawns, Vietnamese lemongrass beer steamed clams, Vietnamese savory prawn coconut pancakes, Vietnamese prawn sweet potato fritters.
Vietnamese tamarind crabs
- 4 pounds live rock crabs
- 2 tbsps olive oil
- 4 shallots, sliced
- 4 garlic cloves, chopped
- ½ tablespoon peppercorns
- 1 cup tamarind sauce
- 4 bird’s eye chili, sliced and extra for serving
- ¼ cup basil leaves
- ¼ cup cilantro
- 1 cup tamarind water
- ¼ cup fish sauce
- ¼ cup sugar
- 4 ounces tamarind paste
- 1 ¼ cup boiling water
- To make the tamarind water, soak the tamarind paste in boiling water for 5 minutes breaking up any chunks with a spoon. Set aside until cool enough to handle. Pass the mixture through a sieve to get the tamarind water.
- To make the tamarind sauce, in a bowl whisk together tamarind water, fish sauce, and sugar until well combined.
- To prepare the crabs for steaming, freeze the crabs for 1 hour to immobilize them.
- Put the crabs in a large pot. Add about an inch of water. Close the lid and steam them for 8-10 minutes. Remove the crabs from the pot with tongs. Give them a rinse under cool water to clean all the debris off.
- With the heat turned up to high, in a large wok, add the oil, garlic, scallions, and shallots. Saute over medium heat for 1 minute or until fragrant.
- Decrease the heat to medium-high. Add the peppercorns and crabs and toss for 2 minutes.
- Pour the tamarind sauce over the crabs and cook for another 3 minutes.
- Add 2 tbsps basil leaves and chilis and cook for another 2 minutes.
- Remove the crabs and transfer them to a serving plate.
- Let the sauce cook on high heat for 10 minutes until it reduces and becomes thicker.
- Pour the sauce over the crabs. Garnish with more basil, chili, and cilantro and serve immediately.