How to eat crab – with chef Sam Leong
We are in the Ah Chow in Cheltenham’s Albion street circa 1971, the waiter brings canned pineapple juice as our starter from the set menu. Then the main dishes appear including sweet and sour king prawn, round balls of batter which are slightly soggy in the middle swimming in a lurid neon orange sauce. My sister and I are thrilled and baffled in equal measure by these new foods. A few years later, the Mayflower takes its place with flock wallpaper and deep red furnishings – crispy seaweed (actually deep-fried shredded cabbage), Kung Po prawn (sweet and sour with pieces of pineapple) and duck with pancakes and plum sauce. Then a trip to China Town in London’s West End; we climb rickety stairs to a crammed top floor, a lazy Susan revolves in the centre of the table to deliver dishes thick with cornflour, dotted with limp straw mushrooms and bamboo shoots, accompanied by a huge pot of tea. My sister bravely orders duck’s webs and is appalled when it arrives – two feet sit upright on the plate as though the duck has just flown off and left them. This is the patchwork of my experience of Chinese food. Not much of it authentic I presume but I’m afraid that I would run a mile if it was. It’s still all a bit baffling so I jump at the chance to be instructed by chef Sam Leong, a star of Chinese cuisine who is visiting Atlantis.
Sam Leong is a sensation in Singapore who has worked his way up to celebrity status from fairly humble beginnings and after a succesful career as an award-winning hotel chef has set up his own cookery school with his Thai wife Forest. Punctuating his sentences with enthusiastic expressions – “POAANG!” – and lots of hand gestures, he demonstrated how to make wasabi prawns, hot and sour soup and black peppered crab while a small group of us tasted the results.
He warned us that, like durians, we would be divided on the soup. He was right, the thick, intense black shiny broth threaded through with strands of egg white was too much for me in terms of taste and texture but my neighbour ate her whole bowlful. Sam’s signature prawns were firm yet succulent, dipped in their mayonnaise-based coating with a sweet, spicy mango salsa. A marinade of egg white and cornflour was the secret to getting just the right firmness when cooking the prawn and it was this attention to detail about texture which was the biggest lesson of the day for me from Sam.
The final recipe was black pepper crab, dipped in cornflower before deep-frying so that the brown-black sauce (which included HP and Maggi sauces) would cling to the shells. Given these rather odd ingredients I was a bit dubious but the final stir-frying in the pot released inviting peppery, hot aromas. Various tools were provided but I failed to get more than a few strands of the tasty crab meat from the shells until Sam gave us a demonstration of how to eat it. Filled with confidence we all grabbed the crab with our hands and tore the meat limb from limb. Billed by Atlantis as the World’ Best Peppered Crab, I have nothing to compare it to, but it was jolly good. You can download the recipe here or try it at Safrron in Atlantis which has some of Sam’s dishes on its extensive Asian menu – the Seafood night on Tuesdays is worth going to in particular. Watch the video below for Sam’s crab eating lesson.
The cookery session opened the door to Chinese cooking a little wider and I browsed through Sam’s cook book ‘A Wok Through Time’ eagerly. I was really disappointed to see the first three recipes include shark’s fin, encouraging the widespread and barbaric practise of finning. I hope his move from the Singapore hotel environment means this is permanently off Sam’s menu. To read more about this cruel and wasteful practise visit Sharkwater. Otherwise there are lots of ideas in this book worth reading , including an interesting pictorial glossary of ingredients at the end, although some recipes are a bit too ‘cheffy’ for home cooking.
Eager to taste the sweet prawn/hot wasabi combination again but for a lighter taste I adapted it slightly using labaan rather than mayonnaise (a sort of Middle East meets East adjustment).
Wasabi prawns with mango salsa adapted from a recipe by Sam Leong
Ingredients for the prawn marinade
10 large raw prawns, shelled and deveined
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
A dash of sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornflour
2-3 tablespoons wasabi paste
1-2 teaspoons honey
juice of half a lemon
1 mango, diced
2 shallots, chopped
Thai chilli sauce, to taste
Mix prawns with the marinade and set aside for 30 minutes.
Stir the wasabi paste into the labaan little by little until it is the concentration that you like. Keep tasting until it’s just right (mild or fiery). Stir in the honey, then add a little lemon juice, stir and taste again until it’s the right balance of creamy, hot and sharp flavours. Combine the diced mango, shallots and mint leaves with Thai chilli sauce. Put wasabi sauce and the salsa in the fridge until ready to use.
Deep-fry the prawns in hot oil until cooked, for about a minute, and mix immediately into wasabi sauce. Serve with the mango salsa.
My friend over at Ginger and Scotch has made a really useful map of Asian grocery stores in Dubai if you live here and are tempted to explore Chinese cookery further. You can get HP sauce in any supermarket!
I’d love to hear about your Chinese food experiences…are they similar to mine or completely different?
DISCLOSURE: I enjoyed this complimentary cooking course as a guest of the Atlantis The Palm.