I am a sucker for the words “street food.” They call to mind the most exciting and delectable experiences: sizzling fish tacos handed down from the window of a brightly painted truck; smoky grilled meat sticky with spicy lemongrass-chile sauce; colorful drinks in plastic bags, skewered with straws for sipping; steaming bowls of soup slurped while perched on rickety folding chairs.
Alas, only the first two of those are street-food experiences I have actually had, the first at the wonderful (and deeply missed) Dia de Los Tacos truck, and the second at Portland’s Pok Pok when it was still nothing more than a kitchen in a shack and a few tables and chairs with plastic sheeting to keep the rain off.
So when I spotted a cookbook called Susan Feniger’s Street Food, of course I had to have it. Feniger was familiar to me from Top Chef, where I enjoyed her bright smile and eccentric good cheer. I’d been meaning to try some of her food. And street food! Well, I was on top of it.
I flipped through the book and found only a few things I thought I could eat while still struggling with achalasia. (I have surgery scheduled for April 14, and it can’t come fast enough, even though I’ll be on a liquid diet for a while afterward.) It was clear to me which one I needed to try first – the Singapore crab cakes with red chile sauce. Though chile crabs are another street-food experience I haven’t had yet, they’ve always sounded amazing to me; whole crabs roughly cut up and quickly wok-fried in a hot, sweet sauce. I imagine the bright rich flavor, the crack of the shell, the tender meat… and hedonistically licking the sticky red sauce off my fingers, one by one.
A bucket-list item for sure.
Of course, no crab cake, no matter how delicious, could ever match the vivid chile crab experience I imagine. But if the flavors were close, it seemed like a place to start. So I wasted little time in collecting what I needed to put them together. The ingredients include a few oddities, some of which I had around: notably Szechuan chile-bean sauce, which I’ve been considering posting about for a while, because it is amazing. A mixture of red chiles and fermented soy or broad beans known as doubanjiang or toban djan, it is an explosion of rich and complex flavor. I buy Har Har brand, with a distinctive blue-and-red label; Lee Kum Kee makes a variety that should be pretty widely available. I am never without a jar. A simple vegetable-and-tofu stir fry can be sparked into the stratosphere with a couple spoonfuls of this magic stuff. For more about it, check out this blog entry from Fuschia Dunlop, an incredible author of Szechuan and Hunan cookbooks.
Another unfamiliar ingredient is coconut palm sugar. I received a bag of it from Wholesome Sweeteners when I joined their partner blogger program last month; I’ve also seen it at La Montanita Co-op. I was blown away when I opened the bag and gave it a sniff. The smell of this sugar is richly caramelly, the flavor deliciously warm. Its texture is drier than brown cane sugar’s, more like that of Sucanat (spray-dried cane juice). If you don’t want to buy a bag, you can substitute brown sugar, or buy palm sugar in chunks at an Asian grocery and grate it yourself. (I’ve always been too lazy to try that, so was thrilled to find it in a bag!)
|Clockwise from top left: Ketchup, Szechuan chile bean paste, and coconut palm sugar|
Another unusual ingredient is Japanese mayonnaise. Definitely an acquired taste, Japanese mayo is much thicker than the Western stuff. It comes in a squeeze bottle with a star tip and is flavored with rice vinegar. The difference doesn’t sound huge, but if your palate is used to Hellman’s, you’re in for a shock. Kewpie is the most well-known brand. American mayo should work fine, though it’s a little thinner.
The last ingredient you may not have worked with before is Thai basil: dark green and purple, with a much more pronounced anise flavor than that of Italian basil, its flavor is distinctive – but feel free to substitute any basil if you can’t easily obtain Thai.
Once you’ve assembled the ingredients, the crab cakes and sauce go together pretty easily; nothing in the preparation is surprising or difficult. The flavor, however, is out of this world. The cakes have a lot more filler than I usually use in crab cakes – my typical approach is just enough binder to hold them together. But the rice crackers are more than a binder, they’re an important textural element. They melt into a glutinously sticky mass that mimics the stickiness of my imagined streetfood chile crab, while getting wonderfully crisp on the outside. The sauce is scrumptious, thick and red and sweet and richly spicy; the fish sauce lends it just a little of the fermented funk that characterizes so much Southeast Asian food and that keeps me dreaming about the Malaysian streetfood at Manhattan’s Fatty Crab. Feniger’s original recipe didn’t feature any sour tang, which I really wanted, so I added a little lime juice. I also played with ingredient quantities in the crab cakes, and halved the sauce recipe. It still made enough that I had leftovers. A few tablespoons of the sauce stirred into chicken broth with a little lime juice and fish sauce makes an incredible spicy soup; add dumplings or noodles or anything you want for a quick and easy, delectable supper.
More Seafood Recipes: Seared Scallops in Orange-Scented Caramel Sauce, Mussels with Chinese Black Bean Sauce, Ceviche
Singapore Crab Cakes with Sweet and Tangy Red Chile Sauce
Serves: 8 as a hearty appetizer, 4 as a light entrée Time: About an hour, mostly hands-on
For crab cakes:
3 oz Japanese rice crackers
½ lb canned crabmeat
½ cup finely chopped cucumber
½ cup finely chopped red onion
¼ cup finely chopped red bell pepper
1/3 cup Thai basil leaves, chopped*
½ cup cilantro leaves, chopped
1/3 cup Japanese mayonnaise* or regular mayonnaise
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
¼ teaspoon salt, as needed
2 tablespoons neutral oil, such as canola or rice bran
For red chile sauce:
1 tablespoon neutral oil
1/2 medium red onion, sliced
2 3-inch chunks fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
¾ cup ketchup
½ cup Wholesome Sweeteners organic coconut palm sugar*, or brown sugar in a pinch
1/4 cup Szechuan chile bean paste*
1 tablespoon lime juice
2 tablespoons butter
Sliced or chopped cucumber or bell pepper, or 8 sprigs of cilantro or basil
Crush the rice crackers very finely by hand or in a food processor or blender. Pick over the crabmeat and remove any stray bits of shell or cartilage. In a large bowl, mix the cracker crumbs and crab with the cucumber, onion, bell pepper, basil, cilantro, mayonnaise, fish sauce, and lime juice. Taste the mixture and add the salt if necessary. If it seems too dry, add more mayonnaise and/or fish sauce until it holds together when pressed into a patty. Cover bowl and put in the refrigerator while you make the sauce.
Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and saute until soft and translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low, stir in the ginger, and saute another 2 minutes, until fragrant. Add the ketchup, coconut palm sugar, and chile bean paste; stir, bring to a simmer, and simmer 5 minutes, or until the sauce turns glossy and cohesive. Remove from heat, let cool a few minutes, then scrape into a blender container. Add ½ cup water and blend until smooth. Return to the sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Let simmer gently while you finish the crab cakes.
In a large skillet, heat the oil until very hot (a droplet of water should sizzle instantly on contact). Working quickly, shape the crab mixture into 8 patties and slide each into the hot oil as it’s finished. (You can form them ahead of time and keep them on a plate until adding them to the pan, but I find that they have a frustrating tendency to stick to the plate.) Sear the cakes on the first side for 3 to 4 minutes – depending on how hot your pan is – until very well browned. Turn and cook on the second side for 2 or 3 minutes. As the cakes are browning on the second side, stir the butter into the sauce until it melts.
To serve, spread a generous pool of sauce in the center of 8 (for appetizers) or 4 (for entrees) plates. Top each with one or two crab cakes, as appropriate. Drizzle each cake with a little more sauce and top with your choice of garnish. Serve hot.
*See above for description of this ingredient.