Ginataang Alimasag: The Return of a Market-day Favorite

Crustaceans make rare appearances in my family’s kitchen.  This is not because shrimp and crab are expensive (Trust me on this one: one can easily get a kilo and then some for a little less than two hundred pesos.), but because my mother is allergic to them.

However, not even the possibility of a serious case of hives was enough to deter Mom from craving for an old-school family specialty: ginataang alimasag na may labong (soft-shelled crab and bamboo shoots cooked in coconut cream).

Crab cooked in coconut cream was one of those dishes prepared at least one Saturday a month back when I was a child.  Saturday, you see, was – and still is – market day and fresh seafood aplenty appears in the kitchen.  Along with such favorites as pinaksiw na bangus (milkfish cooked in vinegar with ginger and whole peppercorns) and adobong pusit (a local version of calamares en su tinta – squid cooked in its own ink), ginataang alimasag was a dish my father and I always looked forward to.  Well, at least till Mom developed that allergy!

So, I was really startled when I woke up Saturday morning and found the aluminum basin-ful of soft-shelled crabs in the kitchen.  These little monsters cost P 160.00 (a little over US$ 3.00) for a good kilo from the itinerant fishmonger who was making his rounds through the village that morning.  They were a frisky lot, brandishing their claws and snapping them at anyone who came too near the basin.  That, dear SybDive readers, is definitely a sign of really fresh – snapping fresh! – seafood.  🙂

Cooking the crab involves the same procedure used for lobster: you bind up the claws and toss the lot into a large pot of boiling salted water.  This, of course, will not endear me and the rest of my household to those eco-terrorists at PeTA, but it’s a time-honored practice as far as we’re concerned and no nutcase bunch of vegans is going to persuade us otherwise!

The parboiled crabs are then transferred to a large wok where they are sauteed with ginger, salt, and pepper.  Labong – shredded bamboo shoots – are added to give the dish a nutty-tasting crunch.  Some versions of this dish also add siling labuyo (those tiny, incendiary bird’s-eye chilies) at this point, but we’ve chosen not to.  Thin coconut milk is added and the mixture is brought to a boil.  Thick coconut cream is added and the heat is lowered, allowing the dish to simmer for an additional five to ten minutes before serving.

It is one of those dishes that is best served with rice and eating it is definitely not for the unadventurous.  It is best eaten with one’s bare hands with a sense of semi-barbaric glee: cracking open the shells over one’s rice and sucking the sweet flesh out of broken claws and legs.  Some people prefer a bit of patis (fish sauce) spruced up with some kalamansi juice for a tart zing that keeps the sweetness from getting too cloying, but we prefer to have it as is.

My mother took one look at the dish of crab, gulped down two antihistamines, and settled down to a succulent feast.  My sister, however, was completely and utterly horrified at seeing us let our hair down (so to speak) and smash through those beautifully cooked crustaceans.  The squeamish nineteen-year-old opted to lunch on bacon and eggs and I pretty much let her be.

I was too busy enjoying the flavors of my childhood.  😀