I love typhoon shelter crab – a dish that was “invented” in Hong Kong. The name is derived from the fact it used to be served on the small fishing boats that took refuge in the typhoon shelters, but it’s now the speciality of many seafood restaurants in the Wan Chai district, where you can order the dish in different levels of spiciness.
The original dish is something to be eaten with good friends who don’t mind the messy, hands-on work of extracting the meat from the shell, and are fine with having garlic breath for a few hours. This version, using soft shell crabs, is a compromise – you get all the crabby flavour without having to deal with the shells. You’ll still have garlic breath, though.
You can use pre-peeled garlic for this dish, but it should be in whole cloves. Don’t use the crushed garlic sold in jars because it’s puréed too finely and often has a metallic taste.
If you can’t find soft shell crabs (frozen ones are fine!), then you can go back to the original recipe and use a large fresh crab (preferably mud crab). But if you want an easier-to-eat dish, buy large fresh whole shrimp or prawns, and split them open by cutting along the back shell, to expose the flesh.
The fried garlic topping is delicious when spooned over plain rice or plain congee, to temper the flavour.
Put the garlic cloves in a food processor and process until roughly chopped – do not chop them too finely. (Or chop the garlic with a sharp knife.)
Put the garlic in a wok and add enough oil to cover it by about 1cm (7/16 in). Place the wok over a medium flame and heat until it just starts to sizzle, then turn the heat to low and cook, stirring often, until the garlic takes on a little colour. Increase the heat to medium and stir constantly until the garlic turns just a little darker than pale golden. Watch carefully because it will turn dark and bitter if overcooked. Pour the garlic and oil through a fine strainer set over a bowl. (The garlic oil can be decanted into a clean bottle and used to stir-fry vegetables and meat. I don’t use it to fry the soft shell crabs and other ingredients for this dish because the garlic flavour would be overwhelming.)
Briefly rinse the black beans, then put them in a bowl and cover with warm water. Soak them for about 15 minutes, then drain them before drying with paper towels. Roughly chop the black beans.
Clean the crabs. Use kitchen shears (or a sharp knife) to cut off the face, slicing deep enough to trim off the eyes and mouth. Turn the crab belly-side up and pull off the flexible “apron” at the base (it is bell-shaped for females, pointed for males). Turn the crab over, then lift up the right side of the top shell, leaving it attached at the centre. Pull off and discard the feathery gills from the body, then fold the shell back down. Repeat with the left side of the crab. Put the crab on a clean tea towel and prepare the other crabs the same way.
Carefully blot up as much moisture as possible from the crabs – not just from the surface but also under the back shells (this will save you from some of the splatters that are inevitable when frying the crabs).
Clean the wok used to fry the garlic, then dry it over a high flame. Pour in fresh oil to a depth of about 12cm (4¾ in) and heat it to 180° Celsius (350° F).
Put some flour in a flat dish. Working with two crabs at a time, dredge them thoroughly in the flour so they are completely coated, shake off the excess, then put them in the hot oil and fry for about two minutes on each side. Take care, because the oil will splatter. Lift the fried crabs out of the oil and drain them on paper towels. After all the crabs have been fried, discard the oil and clean and dry the wok.
Cut the fresh chillies in half lengthwise, leaving them intact at the stem end. Scrape out and discard the seeds.
Heat about 100ml (¼ cup and 2 tbsp and 2 tsp) of oil in a wok placed over a medium-high flame and when it’s hot, add the fresh chillies and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Add the dried chillies, and cook for about 15 seconds, or until they start to darken. Use a shallow slotted spatula to scoop the chillies from the wok, leaving behind the oil.
Cut the spring onions into 5cm (2in) lengths. Add half the spring onion to the wok, sprinkle with salt, then stir-fry over a medium-high flame until wilted. Use the slotted spatula to scoop the spring onion out of the oil and put it on a plate. Add the remaining spring onion and the black beans to the hot oil and stir-fry until the spring onion is wilted. Scoop the black beans and spring onion out of the wok. Pour the remaining oil out of the wok but don’t wash it.
Heat the wok again over a medium-high flame, then add the fried garlic, sugar and panko and stir constantly for about a minute. Add the chillies, spring onion and black beans and mix thoroughly. Taste the mixture and add some salt, if necessary.
Add the fried soft shell crabs to the wok and cook over a medium-high flame, stirring frequently, until the crabs are hot.
Arrange the ingredients on a platter, then serve with steamed rice or plain congee.