Let’s talk about Cantonese cuisine for a moment.
Among China’s eight major culinary traditions, it’s often described as the most refined. But what do people mean when they say that? And is it true?
Invariably, the claim always traces back to the maxim that rules over all Cantonese food:
“Always preserve the food’s natural flavor.”
In other words: Use the freshest ingredients, and prepare them simply.
This sounds romantic, but 99% of the time I hear this, it’s when I compliment a non-Cantonese dish, and a local foodie would “educate” me– rather patronizingly– with the refrain: “We Cantonese don’t like to cover up the natural flavor,” as though it was a law; as though any seafood dish other than Cantonese steamed fish was inferior, end of discussion.
But– and I know this is heresy to Cantonese ears– it’s an awful myth that simple preparations automatically unveil an ingredient’s full potential. Often, “natural flavors” need to be coaxed out. The best steaks are dry aged, then seared to take advantage of the Maillard reaction. The world’s best ham is salt-cured for years to develop their inimitable flavor. And what of the countless foodstuffs that rely on fermentation to generate depth and complexity?
This is true even of the most delicate ingredients. The world’s best sushi chefs age their fish, because “fresh” fish, pulled straight out of the ocean, has no taste and no texture beyond “chewy.”
So you might understand why I found Hong Kong’s steamed seafood– the ultimate expression of the Cantonese ethos– underwhelming. What was praised as “subtle” (or “refined”) translated to me as “plain.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always thought it tasted wonderful– fresh as the sea and sweet as the ocean breeze– it just never lived up to the hype.
It wasn’t until I tried The Chairman’s famed flower crab that things began to click. Not that it was a new recipe. In fact, it was a variation of the most traditional of Cantonese crab recipes, faultlessly executed; the simplest possible preparation utilized to the greatest effect.
It wasn’t the crab that killed me, though.
It was the noodles.
Once I tried the noodles, I understood:
What does it mean to coax out a crab’s full potential? Where lies the proverbial pot of gold? The pot of gold, dear reader, is in the drippings.
The fat; the goop; the roe; the internal and external liquids dripping into the chicken stock, chicken fat, and aged Shaoxing wine to form the perfect sauce, which completely soak into absorbent, thirsty rice noodles.
See? This is a noodle dish that you thought was a crab dish.
The crab, mostly, is the dressing.
Thankfully, you don’t need to visit The Chairman for this. It’s quite easy to make at home. Flower Crab is local to Hong Kong, but any crab will do. My recipe after the photos.
First, THE CRAB MUST BE FRESH. Do not attempt this with a dead crab.
To Deconstruct the Crab:
Remove the “apron” (tail flap) and pry off the top shell from the body. Chop the body in half and twist off its claws and legs. Tap the claws with the back of a cleaver to lightly crack the shells.
On a plate, rearrange the pieces as though the crab were still alive.
In a bowl, mix 2 cups of chicken stock, 1/4 cup of aged Shaoxing wine, three heaping tablespoons of rendered chicken fat, a pinch of salt, and few slices of ginger. Adjust to taste.
Use rice noodles (preferably fresh) for their neutral flavor and absorbency. Boil until tender and drain. Set aside.
The Crab & Assembly:
Steam over a rolling boil for 5 minutes, then pour the sauce over the crab and steam until the shell is red (for a medium-size crab, roughly another 8 minutes).
By this time, the cab drippings will have mingled with the sauce to form a pool of liquid gold beneath the crab.
To serve, add the noodles to the drippings/sauce and top with finely chopped scallions. Serve with a dipping sauce of Chinese red vinegar with finely shredded ginger.