A Singaporean classic, this black pepper crab recipe transports my tastebuds back to the Lion City. The sauce is sticky and glazey, but if you like things sauce-y (with more to mop up!), then add a little more stock or water towards the end. Don’t forget your bibs for this one.
1 (about 1.2kg/ 2 lb 10 oz) mud crab
1½–2 tbsp black peppercorns
2/3 cup tapioca flour
1½ tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp kecap manis*
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp caster (superfine) sugar
1 1/2 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra oil for deep-frying
150g (5.5 oz) shallots, finely chopped
4 large cloves garlic, finely chopped
1½ tbsp finely chopped or grated ginger
60g (2 oz) butter, chopped
5 small red or green chillies, finely sliced (or to taste)
handful fresh curry leaves, plus extra to serve
1/2 cup chicken stock
fresh coriander (cilantro) sprigs, to serve
To prepare the crabs, working with one at a time, turn each crab so the tail end of the underside is facing you. Using your fingers, lift the tail flap up and twist to remove it. Place your fingers under the edge of the top shell where the tail was, then pull up on the top shell to remove it, taking care to remove all the attached innards as you do so (these should pull away with the shell). It helps to pull it away from you on a slight angle so all those innards don’t fall out and make mess. Remove the feathery gills down each side of the crab, then very briefly rinse crab (you don’t want them sodden) and pat dry using paper towel. Using a large, heavy knife or a cleaver, cut each crab in half through the shell lengthways. Twist off the large claws, then using a meat mallet or similar, lightly crack the claws all over so the meat is easier to extract later.
Combine the soy sauce, kecap manis, oyster sauce and sugar in a small bowl and stir to combine. Set aside.
Very coarsely crush the peppercorns using a mortar and pestle or an electric spice grinder; they should still be a little chunky. Set aside.
Heat enough oil to one-third fill a large wok over medium-high heat to 190C/375F (at this temperature, a cube of bread will turn golden in about 10 seconds. While the oil is heating, line a large tray with several layers of kitchen towel. Place half the crab on another tray, scatter over half the tapioca flour and toss to lightly coat the crab, adding a little more flour if necessary. Shake off excess flour, then add the crab to the wok, taking care not to splash yourself with hot oil. Deep fry, turning once, for 5 minutes or until light golden and just cooked through. Remove to the lined tray. Repeat this process with the remaining crab and tapioca flour. When all the crab is cooked, very carefully remove the hot oil to a heat-proof container to cool (once safe to handle, you could even strain it and use it to flavour stir-fries, noodles dishes and so on). Wipe the wok clean.
Add the 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil to the wok, then heat over medium-high heat. Add the chopped shallot, garlic and ginger and cook, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes or until softened. Add the butter and cook for 30-40 seconds until it melts and foams, then add the peppercorns, chilli and curry leaves. Cook for another 1 minute or until fragrant. Add the soy sauce mixture and stock and bring to the boil. Return the crab to the wok and cook for about 3 minutes, using tongs to keep tossing the crabs in the sauce, or until the crabs are well coated and the sauce has reduced and thickened to a glaze consistency.
Transfer to a large serving dish, scatter over extra curry leaves and coriander sprigs, then serve.
– Kecap manis is an Indonesian dark sweet soy sauce. It’s available from the Asian aisle of most supermarkets or from an Asian grocer.