Do you know the saying "Do as you're told and not as I do?" Well let me give you four pieces of advice for the Sydney Seafood School's Chilli crab cooking class.
Step 1 - Do not get a manicure on the same afternoon when you have the class as I did with my new Chanel Imperial which caused said manicure to look like a $2 job.
Step 2 - Do not wear one of your favourite dresses (a Zimmermann heart shaped tulip dress) as it will absorb the smell of all of the spices, the wok and the crab.
Step 3 - Do not get your hair done as you will only get bits of crab in your hair depending on how hungry your husband is when eating.
Step 4 - Arrive there hungry. Which I did thankfully.
Mr NQN and I creep into the class late-Sydney traffic around Pyrmont has got to be the worst. We peer in fearing getting a telling off but the teacher Fiona Forsyth welcomes us in. We take a seat up the back of the fish skin wallpapered room (yes the wallpaper is made of treated fish skin!) where she is giving a demonstration of how to make two crab dishes: Chilli crab and crab with ginger, garlic and lemongrass.
The fish skin wallpaper
Firs things first. Are you as curious as I am as to actually go from buying a crab at the fishmarket to serving a delicious dish? I'd heard rumours about getting a fishmongers to do it for you etc but as I am an independent sort of lass (ok not really, I like to be carried places), I still wanted to know how to prepare a crab from start to finish.
She starts with the tab on the underside of the crab. We're using blue swimmer crabs for two reasons: because these crabs can be had at a lower price of about $16 a kilo whereas a mud crab is $45 a kilo and also because mud crabs need to be live before cooked and this can cause some squeamishness amongst some people. Blue swimmer crabs are generally smaller than mud crabs at around 300-500grams (10ozs to 1 pound) and have a softer shell which makes them terrifically easy to eat.
Removing the lip or tab from the underside of the crab
Prising the top shell from the rest of the body
Fiona removes the "lip" or triangular shaped tab which comes off easily. Then holding the centre of the crab simply pull apart the top shell from the rest of the body exposing the centre. Remove the eyes and the spongy finger like pieces which are the lungs also called dead man's fingers.
Removing the dead man's fingers and eyes and any other loose parts
Cutting it in half
With a sharp knife (or a cleaver if that's the way you roll) and with the claws facing away from you, using the heel of a knife and a swift motion cut the crab in half down the centre of the body. If you do it in a swift motion with a sharp knife this prevents the meat being squashed.
Firstly cut off the big leg leaving four smaller legs behind
Then cut it in half giving you two pieces with two smaller legs
Then spacing apart the claws cut off the largest claw as shown. Then find the mound which is a pyramid shape in the rest of the crab and on the lower side cut the rest of the legs as shown with two legs per piece. Be sure to crack the larger claws so that the heat can get inside and cook the crab as the shell on the large claws is harder than the rest of the crab. You should have six pieces plus the top of the shell which you can use to decorate.
Crack the claws to let the heat in to cook the meat
And if you do want to make mud crab, the most humane way to kill a mud crab is to let them drift off to sleep in the freezer for about 45 minutes. Then plunge them immediately into a pot of boiling water for about 8 minutes per 500grams or 1 pound straight from the freezer (don't let them defrost and wake up). After that, you can cut them up and remove the dead man's fingers etc. Chefs brain spike crabs but that is because they know exactly where to spike the crabs.
Another tip is never to wash the crabs as water dilutes the flavour of crabs. It can also prove hazardous when frying crab with the oil. If you need to, you can always wipe the crab with a damp paper towel or cloth.
Fiona then demonstrates how to make the chilli crab. People interject occasionally asking questions. It's a relatively large class at about 50 people, some in work groups or friend groups. She gives us a tip about using ginger-new season ginger tends to have a paper thin skin and is quite moist but is relatively mild in flavour unlike ginger that has a thicker skin so if you like the ginger flavour and have new season ginger, you may need to add more.
Chillies are of course one of those things that most of us know to be careful about when chopping up. The heat is in the seeds and the membrane and of course don't touch your eyes or lips or sensitive areas (!!) after chopping up chillies. It is easier to chop chillies up on the inside surface rather than on the shiny outer.
The second dish that she demonstrates is the stir fried crab with ginger and green onions. This is a very simple to make dish that can be done in about 15 minutes from start to finish even with dealing with the crabs (which in truth only takes a few minutes). It's a fragrant mix of ginger, lemongrass, garlic and green onions or shallots perfectly seasoned with salt and pepper and shao xing chinese cooking wine.
Chopping green onions
She shows us how to make the most of lemongrass. We only typically use 1/3 to 1/2 of the lemongrass stalk and mostly the bottom part. If it feels woody or dry simply peel away the top layer or two. Then chop off the end and then slice the rest of the lemongrass but don't leave them in rings as the rings can tend to get caught in the back teeth like quoits! And I thought that was just me :P To use the top green part of the lemongrass, pound it with the back of a knife to release the flavour and boil it up with some water and sugar or honey for a lovely lemongrass tea. And to plant it, take a 1-2cms piece from the bottom and place it in a small glass of water until roots start to develop and plant it. It grows like bamboo so plant it in a sturdy pot!
Demonstration over to a round of applause (I think the smell tempted many and if we were about to cook there may have be a rush at the demonstration dishes), we make our way into the cooking area. I've been here a few times, once at the reopening of this kitchen. it's stunning, all sleek lines and space-agey cooktops from Fisher and Paykel.
We choose a table and we're paired with a group of 4 others, a couple called Ian and Lindsay and John and his friend who not only hasn't cooked crab before but never eaten it. And interestingly, about 70% of the class is male. Perhaps it's something about dealing with cracking a crab that brings out the menfolk...
Everyone has a try cutting up the crab and I'm surprised at how easy and quick it is. Then we split off into two groups and Ian and Lindsay makes the chilli crab whilst the rest of us make the stir fried crab. Before we know it, we're heating our wok-for the chilli crab they are using a traditional wok on a gas burner whereas for the stir fried crab we are using a Breville wok. It heats up quickly and we fry the crab with the garlic, lemongrass and ginger in two lots making sure to cook the larger claws for longer and submerging them at the bottom where it is hottest. Then we add them back into the wok and add sugar, green onions and the shao xing wine and then it is ready!
Stir fried crab with ginger and green onions
We take our crab into the dining room next door where it is served with jasmine rice. The chilli crab is delicious, a rich flavour from the crab juices giving it a crab bisque quality (although I am biased and think my mum's recipe still reigns supreme).
The stir fried crab with ginger and green onions is wonderful-the salt and pepper seasoning bringing out the flavour and the added aromatics of ginger, garlic and lemongrass gives the salt and pepper an added dimension. And the shao xing wine which can be substituted with a dry sherry is divine. The blue swimmer crab has a sweet, delicate meat and a softer shell than a mud crab which means that the thin legs are easy to prise the meat out-simply press down and the meat pops out.
There is so much crab to eat and I catch Mr NQN gobbling it down happily with a smile on his face. I ask him if he thinks that the $85 fee is worth it and he answers "I don't think it's too bad at all" (code for great value). Unfortunately, the Sydney Seafood School don't allow reproduction of the class recipes so you may have to go on your own to get the recipe. I did ask though!
So tell me Dear Readers, is there a type of seafood that you want to learn how to cook?
Ta-da! My favourite dish and I
NQN and Mr NQN attended the Chilli Crab class at the Sydney Seafood School as guests of Fisher & Paykel
Sydney Seafood School
Bank Street Pyrmont, Sydney Fish Market, NSW
Tel: +61 (02) 9004 1111
The chilli crab class is $85 per person