When I was about 14 years old, my sister and her family used to make a “pilgrimage” to Baltimore from New York once every summer or so (when I happened to be in New York on holiday) to get some Maryland style steamed crab. Phillips Seafood was the restaurant of choice (though we later stopped at crab shacks in little nooks or dead ends in Maryland crab country) and they would spread paper on a large table, bring you a bucket of crab encrusted with “Old Bay” seasoning and you would attack this bounty with little wooden mallets and your bare hands. It was barbarically good. We used to ask for some cider vinegar to dip our crab in and it was an UTTERLY UNFORGETTABLE FOOD experience. Things were a lot simpler then (what?, 35+ years ago!) but the crab was spectacular.
It’s a little known fact that Bantayan is an epicenter of blue crab processing, and they now pick and can crab for several venerable brands (apparently, including Phillips of Maryland!) for export around the world. They typically only use the lump crab meat, and all the other bits and pieces are sold locally by the kilo. I never got to the packing plants (just didn’t have enough time and one day was a Sunday to boot) but we do source a lot of crab meat from Bantayan for our dishes at Zubuchon. At any rate, when our contacts on the island asked if we wanted anything, I asked if they could get some alimasag or blue crab and they presented me with this enormous palanggana or pail filled with 20+ kilos of the most amazing alimasag just minutes after we arrived! JACKPOT!!! At just PHP190 a kilo ($2 a pound!) I was utterly giddy with excitement. GIDDY. I had packed a large container of Old Bay seasoning into our luggage, a bottle of cider vinegar, two bottles of Heinekin (only maartè beer because it had expired the week before and couldn’t be served) and some experimental zubu salt (hand harvested sea salt that we baked and ground ourselves) and a large steamer. It was my hope that I could approximate those Maryland crab meals from decades ago (and which I note from their on-line menu no longer exists the way we ate them)…
Into the base of a large steamer add about roughly 2 inches depth of water. Add the contents of two bottles of beer, a couple of glugs of cider vinegar and some freshly squeezed lemon juice (half a lemon will suffice). Set that over a burner set on the highest intensity, cover and wait for the liquid to just about come to a boil. Meanwhile rinse the crabs with some water, leaving their shells wet. Douse them (not sprinkle, douse) with lots and lots of Old Bay Seasoning (made up of ground fennel seed, paprika, salt, etc.) and some nice sea salt. Make sure to cover both the tops and bottoms of the crab shells and lay them in one or two levels of your steamer. Cover and steam for some 20 minutes or so, depending on the size of the crab. If you are cooking a LOT of crab, it may take up to 25 minutes or so.
Serve straight out of the steamer. In Baltimore, I don’t think they had a “sawsawan” per se, so consider this the pinoy twist. Take a dish, add some cider vinegar and a sprinkling of old bay seasoning (or scrape some of the crust from crabs with the spices into the vinegar) and add some salt and cracked black pepper if you like. Chopped chilies would be a nice addition as well. Then cover your body with a large plastic bag or old bed sheet and get cracking!
The crab in Bantayan was SWEET. So fresh, so light and so utterly delicious. Honestly, better than what I remember our Baltimore crab meals to be. And the spice was just right. The dipping sauce perfect. We went through crab after crab after crab. No rice, just pure fresh crab meat! If this was the only thing I had for lunch that day, I bet I could have motored through 2 kilos of blue crab on my own!
This was what one of our plates looked like after the crab, and that’s after a full seafood lunch described in the previous post!
At another table, another plate — gosh it was a mess but a delicious mess! The price of this feast under normal conditions would be prohibitive (think fresh crab in Manila at PHP400-500 a kilo plus restaurant mark-ups) but in Bantayan that day, it was an affordable luxury that we will only experience every decade or so… :)