Ningbo Crab with Sticky Rice Cakes (Nian Gao)
For more Hangzhou recipes, check out my NPR Kitchen Window column.
Cleaning and cutting up live crab is not for the faint of heart.
I had no problem watching Hangzhou TV chef Chen Leilei do it when she gave me a cooking lesson back in China in August. But I had more trouble when I tried to recreate the recipe, using too-small Maryland Blue crabs, with my dad in Virginia.
Chen’s Ningbo Crab with Sticky Rice Cakes (nian gao) was about the best thing she prepared for us at her apartment in Hangzhou. We met her at a local, open-air wet market, where she picked out the still-swimming fresh crabs. At the market, she also bought those pillowy glutinous rice sticks (nian gao) so much fresher than the refrigerated or frozen “rice ovalettes” (known as dduk in Korean) you find at Asian markets here.
The finished recipe, from the seaport of Ningbo just east of Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province, had the perfect balance of salty, sweet and umami flavors smoothed out by the presence of the dry sherry-like Shaoxing wine. This ubiquitous cooking wine is central to Hangzhou dishes and shows up in much of Chinese cuisine. Pick some up at your local Asian market and use it to enhance any stir-fry or dipping sauce.
What follows is my attempt at translating Chen Leilei’s recipe. And if you’re squeamish about live crab, try boiling them in salted water for two minutes first before you dismantle them. Just stun them unconscious first (by hitting the head against the cutting board), so they aren’t boiled alive.
Ningbo Crab with Sticky Rice Cakes
Makes about 4 servings
2 live crabs, weighing about a pound total (mature females with roe if possible)
1/3 of a 2-pound package of sticky rice ovalettes, separated and softened in hot water
Small bowl of cornstarch for dipping crab
2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and cut into slivers
3 teaspoons sugar
1 cup water
1 bunch scallions, quartered lengthwise and sliced into 2- inch strips (or use a mix of scallions and garlic chives or Chinese leek flowers)
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1/2 cup Shaoxing wine
1.Stun the crab, remove aprons and carapace (reserve whole back shells for stir-fry) and clean out guts and lungs. Quarter crab and bash the shell a bit with cleaver so flavor will seep out when it cooks. Dip exposed meat in cornstarch to keep it in the shell and add texture. Separate the rice cakes and soak them briefly in hot water to soften them. Drain them.
2. Heat canola oil in wok. Add slivered ginger and stir-fry a minute, until fragrant. Add crab pieces (including the whole carapaces) and stir-fry about 4 minutes, until the shells turn red.
3. Add the Shaoxing wine, half the scallions, soy sauces, sugar, rice cakes and water. Cover with lid and simmer about 2 minutes, until done.
4.Remove lid and stir in remaining scallions. Plate and serve, with crab crackers if necessary.