Black Pepper Crab Claws
"You do realise Singapore is the most food-obsessed country on the planet?"
Kevin Kwan (2013)
Any seafoodie who has visited Singapore will almost certainly have sought out what is arguably their national dish: "Singapore Chilli Crab". I have been that person. They, like me, will have found on the menu something of a lesser-celebrated relation: "Black Pepper Crab". It's a super dish and one I've had in my folder of recipes to try making at home for about the last 15 years, ever since I returned from my visit to Singapore.
In Asia, this type of dish would typically be made with native blue swimmer or mud crabs. We do have swimmer crabs in UK waters but they're quite small - velvet crabs are an example. Our brown crabs are more akin to the mud crabs of Australasia and would work superbly in this dish. But I used them in my Singapore Chilli Crab recipe, so thought I would do something a touch different here.
Martin Yorwarth was occasionally bringing spider crab claws to the farmers' market - big ones usually, claws from large cock crabs (hen spider crabs have diminutive, spindly claws, no more substantial in yield of white meat than their legs). These claws come uncooked, which in itself isn't much of a story as crabs shed their claws if it gets them out of a tight spot, only to regenerate them in short order. In fact, the story is that with spider crab so plentiful in our waters, a few find themselves in our fishermen's nets. The process of extricating them from the nets leaves behind claws that otherwise could be a waste product, and bodies that are then used as bait in traps for whelks and suchlike.
But no wasting here! It's no great secret that a reason for the lack of popularity of spider crab is the amount of picking they require. That said, a meaty claw from a large male spider crab is very easy-pickings and about the best-flavoured white crab meat you can find. It may even be considered by some to be an injustice to coat them in such an assertive, spicy sauce, but I feel comfortable defending myself against that line of criticism should it come.
This is one of those dishes where you get as much on your fingers, face and clothes as you do in your belly. Serve with fingerbowls, napkins and cold beer, and eat in old clothes.
Despite playing second-fiddle to Singapore's "Chilli Crab" I found a plethora of recipes and guides for this dish on the internet, notably on YouTube. It seems there are broadly two methods. The first deep-fries the raw but cut-up crab pieces and finishes them in a thick coating sauce. I'm perfectly comfortable with deep-frying food as I don't eat deep-fried food often and a little bit of what you fancy does you good, or so the saying goes. But deep-frying does come at the cost of using up a lot of oil that is very often not likely reusable (plus there's the bore of discarding it properly) so I decided for this number to use the alternative approach which is to steam the crab pieces in a looser broth-like liquid and use slated cornflour to thicken the sauce to coating consistency.
Almost all recipes I found included curry leaves which I do not remember from my experiences of the dish in Singapore. However it is clearly a common ingredient in the dish's preparation, it certainly fits from a geographic standpoint, and it's flavour contribution is very welcome. I've held back a little on the amount of garlic that most recipes included and should offer a note of caution that the quantity of black pepper creates a pretty punchy spice-hit, so do bear this in mind when gauging how much chilli to include. Some of the recipes I found included onion in the mix, even red onion, but I quite like using the white of spring onion in the sauce and it's green for garnish.
Getting hold of raw spider crab claws is not going to be easy for most at the best of times. However, crab claws are quite widely available frozen and would make a perfectly good alternative. For example Bradley's Fish sell frozen claws from Brown Crabs caught in Scotland. The shell of these crabs is somewhat denser than that of spider crabs so the quantity/weight required for the recipe needs to be considered, and they are previously cooked so will only require 3-4 minutes' reheating in step 4 of the recipe.
Black Pepper Crab Claws
Ingredients (Serves 2)
500g Spider Crab claws (see recipe intro for alternatives)
1½ tbsp oyster sauce
1½ tbsp soy sauce
125ml boiling water
2 tbsp black peppercorns, coarsely crushed with a pestle and mortar
1 tbsp sunflower or vegetable oil
15 curry leaves
2-3 garlic cloves, chopped (approx 1½ tbsp)
3 spring onions, white part chopped, green part sliced or shredded to garnisy
1-2 mild red chillies, seeds removed, finely chopped, or quantity to taste
1 tsp sugar, or quantity to taste
½ tbsp cornflour mixed with 1 tbsp water
For the garnish:
Sliced or shredded green of spring onion (see above)
Sliced or shredded red chilli
To make the crab claws easier to handle once cooked, crack them with a couple of good smacks from a meat hammer or rolling pin.
Combine the oyster sauce, soy sauce and boiling water.
In a wok or deep frying pan, dry-fry the crushed peppercorns for a minute or so until aromatic then add the butter and oil. Once the butter has melted add the garlic, curry leaves, white of spring onion and chopped red chilli. Stir fry for a minute or two.
Pour in the oyster sauce, soy sauce and water and bring to the boil. Add the crab claws, cover the pan and cook over a medium heat for 10 mins, stirring occasionally.
Check the sauce for sweetness and adjust with sugar to taste.
Finally stir in the cornflour and water mixture and cook uncovered for a further 2-3 mins until the sauce thickens and clings to the crab claws.
Garnish and serve with fingerbowls and napkins. And cold beer.
Bradley's Fish, website accessed 5 January 2022