Very Crispy Fried Soft Shell Crabs with Thai Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce



An activity which occupies several hours of my time each week involves reading things that were written as long as millennia ago. It’s a fun exercise that grants the nosy me not only knowledge of historical events but also access to the minds of ancient people who, though lived in a different time and place, had the same basic wants, needs, fears, and aspirations as mine. As it turns out, some of them, to my amusement, even had the same bad (?) habit I do.

One of the habits I have which may be considered bad is an inability to not doodle. I am a doodler. I can’t help it. I don’t deface stuff, vandalize museums, draw on cave walls, or anything like that. I just doodle privately. A lot. In fact, give me a piece of paper and a pen and before you have a chance to ask me what in Hades I am doing, already some serious doodling will have occurred.

I started off drawing daisies, squares, boxes, pyramids, houses, etc. Then I graduated to animals, principally pigs and crustaceans. Why? Well, you could ask for an explanation, but I would have none to offer.

Take this crab drawing for instance. Based on its location in my book, I can easily date it to circa 2007. But as far as what I was thinking at the time or what possessed me to draw a crab and identify it as being of the soft-shell kind, I can’t recall. All I know is that it was this very drawing, rediscovered two years later, that planted the thought of biting into a crispy soft-shell crab in my brain thereby making me drive all the way to my favorite Japanese market where I knew a huge supply of soft-shell crabs would be waiting for me with open claws.

I love soft-shell crabs. When batter-fried, the shells and extremities of the crabs become very crispy (which allows you to eat the whole crab, shell and all) while the meat inside the shell remains creamy and sweet. Paired with the sweet and tangy sweet chilli sauce, these crispy crabs are unbelievably delicious.

But first, back to the doodling – you see, some of us can’t resist the urge to doodle and scribble stuff, be it sublimely deep things, completely nonsensical things, or everything else in between.

But as any responsible doodler would tell you, just because we scribble and doodle
doesn’t mean our brains are inactive.

In fact, from personal experience, the harder my brain works, the more doodling I do. I once got chastised for doodling in a meeting. What my former supervisor apparently failed to grasp was that even though I drew pictures of pigs happily bouncing on a trampoline, my eyes, for the most part, were transfixed on the meeting leader. I also jotted down important things, participated in the discussion, and contributed to the meeting to the best of my ability. Should all those things have been for naught just because I did them while discreetly drawing a scene from porcine cirque du soleil on my personal notepads?

Well, okay, so that might be unprofessional and a bit immature to some. But to be fair, marginal scribbles aren’t uncommon even in the ancient world. In fact, what makes studying ancient texts fun is the occasional comic relief that is the scribal notes. Scribes were human too. As seriously as they took — or were supposed to take — their work, day after day of long and arduous copying got them tired, bored, and sometimes goofy. For example, the margins of a 9th-century Latin manuscript of a commentary on the Psalms contain Irish commonplace remarks, e.g. ‘It’s cold today.’ ‘That’s natural; it’s winter.’ ‘The lamp gives a bad light.’ ‘It is time for us to begin to do some work.’ ‘Well, this vellum is certainly heavy!’ ‘Well, I call this vellum thin!’ ‘I feel quite dull today; I don’t know what’s wrong with me.’*

It’s not uncommon for manuscripts from the Middle Ages to contain chuckle-inducing colophons describing the scribe’s joy over the completion of the copying process or the pain and drudgery of what they do for a living. A scribe wrote in the margin of Codex Vaticanus where Hebrews 1:3 is, “αμαθεστατε και κακε, αφες τον παλαιον, μη μεταποιει” – translated by me as, “Leave the reading alone and don’t mess with it, you moronic jerk.”

Prayers for divine blessings over themselves for months of hard manual labor are also common. Somehow these scribes felt the need to insert themselves and their thoughts into the works that they knew would be preserved for generations. The reason for this may be similar to the reason behind great painters making cameo appearances in their own paintings, such as Rembrandt in the Nightwatch. I don’t know.

The point is – why should I get blamed for having animal drawings interspersed throughout my class and meeting notes, when these impish scribes wrote silly stuff on manuscripts?

Crispy Soft-Shell Crabs with Thai Sweet Chilli Sauce
Serves 4 as an appetizer
Printable Version

To ensure crispiness, a combination of rice flour and cornstarch is used and some sort of alkaline liquid is added to the dry mixture to form a batter. A combination of baking soda and plain water in this case provides the alkalinity.

To make batter-fried soft-shell crabs: Clean and prepare four soft-shell crabs. Pat them dry with a kitchen towel. Heat up vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat. (You want about 2 inches of oil in depth.)

Make the batter by mixing together 2/3 cup rice flour, 1/3 cup cornstarch, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 2 teaspoons baking soda. This is the basic formula. Add to the basic formula any spices or spice blends you like (as long as they don’t contain salt). For this recipe I added to the basic batter 1 teaspoon ground turmeric, 1 teaspoon ground coriander, and 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper. Whisk in just enough water to form a batter. The consistency of the batter should be similar to that of stirred sour cream. When the oil is ready, dip the crabs in the batter, making sure the entire body is covered, and gently drop them into the oil. Deep-fry about 3-4 minutes per side. Remove the crabs from the wok and drain them on a paper towel-lined plate. Serve with Thai sweet chilli sauce.

*Kuno Meyer’s “Neu aufgefundene altirische Glossen” Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie, viii (1912), pp. 173-177, translated by Bruce M. Metzger, “The Text of the New Testament”, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 21-22.

25 Responses to Very Crispy Fried Soft Shell Crabs with Thai Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce

  1. Angry Asian July 1, 2009 at 7:03 pm #

    hilarious. i love your doodling! i sign my name… alot. like i’m a rockstar.

    i enjoy soft shell crabs as well, it’s been awhile since i’ve had any. i know you gave a 3-4 minutes/side but how do you know for sure they’re done?

  2. Kelly July 1, 2009 at 7:45 pm #

    I ADORE the pig doodle! That is just too cute! As for your crabs, the way you prepare them reminds me of a special at the Thai place we like. Rather than Thai sweet chili sauce they serve it with a thickened Panang curry sauce. Oh my, it’s so good! I think I might like your dipping sauce suggestion better. The sweet and spicy sauce would work so well with the tender, mild crab. Lord, now I’m hungry again!

  3. Jenn July 1, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

    I’m a doodler, too! Hello, fellow doodler. lol. It’s been a habit of mine for years. I’ve got pages upon pages of random doodles from work related things to whenever I was bored. It’s like i have to keep myself occupied. Cute little doodle of the crab. ;-)

    I haven’t tried soft shell crabs. I’d love to. Especially on a nice sandwich. That looks really good with the chili sauce. Yum!!!

  4. Leela July 1, 2009 at 8:05 pm #

    Angry Asian- The legs and the outer shells crisp and cook up almost immediately once the crabs hit the oil, but it’s impossible to tell when the inside is done. The 3-4 minutes suggestion is based on experience. Soft-shell crabs are pretty uniformed in size, so this approximate length of time should work in most cases.

  5. Cate July 1, 2009 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m not a doodler because I am not artistically inclined. However, your doodles are really good!

    I love soft shell crab but have not had it in over 10 years! I am allergic to crab (well, the shell) but after seeing this post I will be running out to the drug store to pick up some antihistamines and head to the nearest Chinese seafood restaurant and order me a crab.

  6. Tangled Noodle July 1, 2009 at 8:20 pm #

    You have the best way of framing the humdrum with humor, history, and helluva good food!

    I’m an occasional doodler, but my worst offense is jotting random thoughts or notes on the margins in my chicken-scratch. Unfortunately, when I go back, I can’t read what I wrote. So many ideas lost to the ephemera . . .!

    Your renditions of pigs on trampolines and happy crustaceans are adorable but now I’ve got soft-shell crabs on the brain. With no Japanese markets in sight, I may have to be content doodling a picture of myself eating a plate of this.

  7. OysterCulture July 1, 2009 at 8:21 pm #

    Oh wow, love, love love softshell crabs. They;re always a a special treat when I order out. Don’t fry much at home as hubby is deathly afraid of fried food, even though I tell him its all about technique.

    I’m a doodler as well and its amazing how it kinda frees your mind to focus on other stuff. Now, I do geometric shapes and flowers. Don’t stray much there.

  8. Chef Fresco July 1, 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    Yum!! I’ve never attempted soft shell crabs, maybe one of these days. . . cute doodling, by the way :)

  9. doggybloggy July 1, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    nice doodles…LOL but that softshell grab gets my real vote…

  10. Cucinista July 1, 2009 at 9:56 pm #

    Great trivia about the manuscript doodlers. It’s sort of like visiting old monuments and finding ancient grafitti — they were just like us. And I love soft shell crab. It always reminds me of that scene in Splash where she eats the entire (hard shell) crab. It always seems slightly miraculous to eat the soft shell kinds.

  11. The Duo Dishes July 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm #

    Always a story behind each dish. Always. :) Never had a soft shell crab, but as lovers of seafood, this may be one of our fave posts. Mmmm, that sauce!

  12. Zita July 1, 2009 at 10:42 pm #

    Ha..love the bounching pigs,I always love to read your post, beside it’s very informative, I don’t know how you can connect everything to food :)

  13. Leela July 1, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    Zita – The ability to connect everything to food is a gift nobody should want. :)

  14. Arwen from Hoglet K July 2, 2009 at 1:41 am #

    Somehow being ancient makes doodles seem much cooler, but none of the old ones seem as fun as your cirque de soleil piggies!

  15. lisaiscooking July 2, 2009 at 1:41 am #

    This looks so delicious! This is one of those things I’ve never worked up the courage to cook at home. Some day.

    Thanks for the tip about drying tofu in the microwave. Great idea.

  16. Justin July 2, 2009 at 3:20 am #

    omg this sounds so good. i love soft shell crabs.

  17. 5 Star Foodie July 2, 2009 at 1:08 pm #

    I love soft shell crabs although I have never made them at home. These sound so delicious with the Thai sweet chilli dipping sauce!

  18. Manggy July 2, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    I was about to say something about doodling, but I got a little speechless thinking about how delicious the crab was gonna be. Incredible.

    I’m SUCH a doodler too! My notes are so littered with them I’m embarrassed to lend them to my classmates. No ideas for entrees, though :)

  19. Marvin July 2, 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    Awesome doodles. I like how you drew the backside of the pig too;). I’ve never used softshells before, but I’ve eaten more than my share. I’ll have to drive out to a Mitsuwa to start experimenting.

  20. Leela July 2, 2009 at 9:03 pm #

    Marvin – Look for soft shell crabs in the freezer at Mitsuwa. They come prepared (cleaned and trimmed) in 4- or 5-pack vacuum-sealed packages. :)

  21. pigpigscorner July 2, 2009 at 9:22 pm #

    love ur doodlings..haha…I’ve never actually seen live soft shell crabs but that’s something I always order at Jap restaurants.

  22. Ravenous Couple July 3, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    this looks absolutely fabulous..we don’t know what we like better..your drawing or the real thing all laid out..

  23. Spoon It On July 4, 2009 at 3:52 am #

    Very informative and entertaining, as usual!

    I never knew there are actually Crabs with soft shells. I thought the restaurants did something to soften the shells. Am I the only one who thought this??

  24. Nui July 23, 2009 at 10:04 pm #

    Hi Leela,

    I’m trying to subscribe to your feed in a new webpage put up by some friends, cvltvre.com. To be able to show your content and beautiful pictures it needs RSS feed. Your Feedburner just shows the topics and that makes it a wee bit difficult to share with the food aficionados over there. Can you please put up an RSS feed please, pretty pleassssse?!

  25. Leela July 23, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    Hi Nui! How are you doing? Thanks for letting me know. Looks like something funky has been going on as I’m supposed to have RSS feeds available. Will look into it ASAP.

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