As a child, I had heard of soft-shell crabs from my parents, who were both originally from the East Coast. Although I don't remember being fond of any kind of seafood before our family lived in Malaysia for a year in 1966, the concept of a soft-shell crab always fascinated me. It seemed so brutal and perverse to wait until the animal was at its most vulnerable stage to harvest and devour it. That there was this small window of time when the crab's exoskeleton was defenseless against a predator's appetite always held some allure for me. This was not an everyday dish. This was special.
Still, for all their appeal, I didn't get the chance to try soft-shell crab until 1994 while living in Saigon. By the time the Gastronomer discovered the crab shack in 2008, prices had risen considerably from what they were in 1994, but the food there is still worth every dong. I believe the cha gio were 5,000 dong (about 35 cents) when we first ate there and the soft-shell crabs were similarly priced. I know the beer bill was always higher than the food bill when it came time to pay. And beer was cheap.
When I was picking up some ahi from Sunh Fish on Broadway, I noticed they had some boxes of soft-shelled crabs in their freezer. The crabs come five to the box, have already been cleaned, and are ready to cook once they thaw. Although they couldn't really compare to the ones in Saigon, at a little under $2 a piece they were worth a try.
I was tempted to make a sort of soft-shell crab po' boy sandwich, or with a tamarind sauce, but in the end decided to go with a crispy fried version served on top of a meatless yum woon sen containing several types of mushrooms. Although I was pleased with how the crabs tasted, I think fried food never tastes as good when you are the one doing the frying. More importantly, they were a hit with Tjing, who has a particularly unpleasant memory associated with Quan 94 in Saigon.
The recipe is adapted from Authentic Recipes from Vietnam. The use of soy sauce results in a dark batter; replacing the soy sauce with a tablespoon of fish sauce would probably produce a lighter, more attractive batter.
Crispy Soft-shell Crab
1 tsp sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp grated ginger
2 tsp gound white pepper
1 tsp salt
1 cup all-purpose wheat flour
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
1 TBS rice vinegar
2 TBS soy sauce (see note above)
1 tsp oil
1 tsp sugar
flour for dusting the crabs
oil for frying
Mix the first five ingredients together and marinate the crabs in this mixture for 30--45 minutes.
Mix the ingredients for the batter, aiming for a thin, pancake-like batter.
Dust the marinated crabs in flour, then dip in batter before frying in oil at 360º--375º. The crabs will have a lot of moisture and may spatter while frying, so be careful. I found I could comfortably fry two crabs at a time in a wok.
Serve with Thai sweet chili sauce, nuoc cham, or tamarind-ginger dipping sauce.