Sound - A birthday treat of claws and shells

Sound - A birthday treat of claws and shells

By
Chui Lee Luk
Contains
4 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742702407
Photographer
Chris Chen

When I recall childhood days, it seems events just appeared on the horizon. Great celebrations such as Christmas seemed always to follow an interval of not having to go to school. (One day I would be at school, the next it was time to break from school and then suddenly there was a Christmas tree set up and we were opening presents.)

It also feels that my family made many impromptu trips. We seemingly just turned up at Sandakan’s small airport, purchased tickets to fly out on the next plane and were transported to another place entirely. Perhaps it was simply that, from my point of view, big events held as much significance as small ones: the next visit to a favourite playground, or to see one of my grandmothers ... I don’t know when I became aware of calendar, date and time, but a sure sign of the passing of time was the celebration feast of chilli crab, something that has been my favourite since I don’t remember when.

I see this as a snapshot of what might have occurred on any birthday feast of my childhood. My sister, father and mother are the faces I recall sitting around the table, the centrepiece being a platter of orange-red crab claws and bodies covered with my favourite tomato-ey, faintly chilli hot sauce. For some reason (I would say I was parroting my parents’ opinions), the most important consideration in my mind is that the sauce should be tasty but never overpower the sweet delicate flavour of the crab.

And so my family starts to methodically work its way through the pile of crabs, the shells knocking together with a high-pitched sound as we choose our favourite pieces. My sister and I have been shown how to take the sweet meat out of the various parts of the crab. My mother will have lightly cracked the harder, larger parts of the crabs such as the claws (depending on size, these would have been jointed and broken up into upper claws and the pincers). She will also have split the torso into quarters and included, for my father, the carapace with its tomalley. (I couldn’t understand his taste for this at that time.) We snap open crab legs and are, hopefully, rewarded with a cylinder of leg meat (indicating perfectly cooked crab); break open the torso into the myriad chambers of translucent shell and tease out the rewarding pieces of flesh; shatter the large pincer and uncover the lode of meat hiding there. So there is much chomping, crunching, cracking and smashing during this meal. It is all as messy as it sounded.

In thinking about the sounds of eating the birthday crab dish, my mind wanders to another favourite, a dish that we ate as an everyday meal: whole prawns, fried simply in oil and dressed with a few lines of oyster sauce. This also made for messy eating. I have always liked the intensified flavour that comes from cooking prawns in their shells; it does protect the prawn meat from excessive heat and preserves the delicate snappy texture. As a child, though, I didn’t like getting oil and oyster sauce on my fingers as I detached segments of shell from the prawn tails. One solution was to suck off all the sauce before peeling, but then I’d lose the sauce that accompanied the prawn ... These were the sorts of perplexing thoughts that occupied me while I was trying to deal with these slippery objects, all the while silently hoping my mother or father would detect my mental difficulty and offer to peel the prawns for me.

A different kind of snap and crunch was the snatch and grab action my sister and I were involved in when presented with a bowl of hand-made prawn crackers.

These are very different from the faintly pink, mock prawn crackers found around the edge of plates of crispy chicken and crispy noodles at many Chinese restaurants the world over. Although the restaurant variety are delicious in their own right, I wonder if you’ve ever been handed a bag of dehydrated prawn crackers, rattling full of promise? This was an occasional childhood delight: firstly watching the mysterious unravelling and puffing up in hot oil (the noise I’d use to describe the frying process is a quiet hiss); then seeing the crackers crisply piled on a plate for our consumption. There is quite a resistant crunch to these crackers; prawn meat ground up with tapioca flour makes for a rather dense paste.

The competition to get to the crackers could become aggressive and noisy, often accompanied by complaints from my sister or me that the other had helped herself to more than her fair allocation.

Recipes in this Chapter

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