A colourful, gutsy South East Asian favourite, this is a dish worth getting your hands dirty for, writes Tony Tan. Roll up your sleeves and give it a crack.
I have a secret - given the choice between chilli crab and black pepper crab, I always prefer the latter. I think it comes from my love for black pepper which, with its complex, well, peppery notes, is perfect with crustaceans such as prawns and crabs.
The other reason for my partiality for this dish is that it has South East Asian roots, and is particularly popular in Malaysia and Singapore. It uses curry leaves, which are Indian, butter, which is part of the British heritage and, from the Chinese pantry, oyster sauce, soy sauce and preserved yellow beans (tau cheong in Cantonese), a type of fermented soy bean that's not dissimilar to Korean doenjang and Japanese miso.
Whatever the reasons, black pepper crab has great personality - it's gutsy, full-flavoured and a fun dish to eat.
While Singapore and Malaysia bicker over which country is the source of this dish, it has long been a street-food favourite and its origins are lost in the mists of time. Some Malaysian writers, however, believe it was created by the Eurasian community in Malacca, while some Singaporeans believe the cooks at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant created it in the 1950s.
In Malaysia and Singapore, mud crabs are preferred for their sweet, juicy meat, though I have had great success with our common blue swimmer (known as flower crab in Malaysia and Singapore) and the more luxurious king crab. Freshness is paramount either way.
If you use mud crabs, always ensure they are alive when you buy them, and give them a good scrub once you've killed them. They're often sold with their claws bound with string. Select those that are heavy, with flailing legs and without liquid oozing from the mouth.
If you use blue swimmers, pick those that smell of the sea with no whiff of ammonia.
Really good black peppercorns make all the difference in this dish. I tend to go for those from India's Malabar Coast, which are known for their fresh grassy overtones, though I have used the more aromatic Kampot pepper from Cambodia, as well as the more pungent and earthy peppercorns from Sarawak. Whichever peppercorn you choose, avoid any that are musty.
Fresh curry leaves, with their distinctive spicy perfume, are best for this recipe - the dried ones are inferior and have no flavour.
I would encourage you to grow a plant of your own (though tropical, it grows in cooler climates as long as it's protected from frost) or else buy a packet of fresh leaves and freeze them.
A note about chilli: I've used the milder long chillies; if you're a chilli fiend, by all means use birdseye. though I believe it can detract from the distinctive fragrance of black pepper.
To make the dish, I deep-fry the crabs briefly first to prevent the roe and meat from falling off. If you're not particular about picking the roe in the sauce, skip this step. (I also like to reserve the leftover oil to add flavour to other stir-fry dishes). After this, it's nothing more than a few stir-fry and braising steps, though it pays to remember to adjust the heat to allow the crab and sauce to develop into a rich complex flavour.
I don't remember where this particular recipe originally comes from - possibly my brother-in-law who was a great cook - but it has always been one of the most popular dishes at my cooking school.
Eating crab is a messy but fun affair and best done with fingers so you can tease the meat from the cartilage and claws. Have plenty of finger bowls filled with weak tea and sliced lemons, lots of paper napkins, a couple of nutcrackers and you're all set. Enjoy the feast.