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Tamarind crabs: a saucy, Saigon surprise

August 5, 2011

Tuesday night, following a tip from a colleague and Tanya’s steady prodding, we saddled up our motorbikes and headed off into the great Saigon unknown searching for tamarind crabs. Armed only with some sketchy Google maps directions, we set off in rush hour traffic. We were looking for an alley in a part of town that none of us were familiar with. We realized that this could be an exercise in futility – we may never find it, it could have closed down, or worse, the crabs may be gross. Since I hardly even know what tamarind is, I was mostly going for the food adventure.

 

 

Forty-five minutes and a few detours later, we turned onto Phó Cơ Điều in District 5 and immediately saw it. We were expecting an alley restaurant, but it seems they’ve expanded. Before long, we were sitting at a table with a lady looking expectantly at us. Other than beer (which is pre-chilled – no big chunks of ice in our beer tonight), we weren’t really sure how to order. There weren’t any menus.

Not knowing what else to do, I went out front to the “kitchen”, which was a man standing next to a huge pan, and pointed at a crate of crabs. I wanted to know how many we should order for six people, but the only thing I got was a price – 200,000VND ($10) per crab – which seemed pretty high. I returned to the table to report on my mission and was met by five equally clueless faces. We figured, we’ve come this far, might as well. Bring us six crabs, please.

From there on, none of us looked back. And if we did, it was only to ask for more baguettes to soak up the insane deliciousness that the tamarind sauce was.

 

 

Our crabs came out on a huge platter. They were straight out of the pan and far too hot to touch. The sauce was thick and dark with whole garlic cloves and tamarind seeds in it. There were also crunchy bits of something that this blog post confirms as pork. (Next time I will observe the chef.) The table became silent as we set to work.

I’ve eaten enough crabs in Asia to be somewhat wary of them. In China, I was encouraged to eat the orange gushy stuff in the middle of its body. I don’t like having to work around lungs and entrails. And I don’t like fighting with a whole crab for a few slivers of meat. But these were perfect. Far more spectacular than I could have ever imagined. I don’t know the proper crab-eating description of it, but the crabs were broken open so there were just twelve sets of legs. Most of the shell could be broken with your hands or teeth – each break rewarding us with a tasty piece of meat.

 

 

(Look how shiny my thumbnail is 😀 )

And the sauce… oh, the sauce.  I wanted to bottle what was left in the bottom of the platter to take home. It was all over our hands, faces, and I’m pretty sure someone went home with it in their hair. Thankfully, instead of the usual packaged towelette, this restaurant provides actual fabric towels – already dampened in plastic wrappers.

As we left, it started raining so we joined the ranks of Saigonians and put on our goofy ponchos. It’s nights like that – bellies full of amazing food, driving in the (light) rain, chatting with our friends at the intersections – when I really love living here. I told Jonathan our children will never believe we were this cool.

If you’re in Saigon and interested, it’s called Quan Ba Chi Cua Rang Me. The address is 13 or 15 Phó Cơ Điều, Ward 12, District 5, HCMC. I’ve only been able to find it once on google maps, and even now can’t get it to search for it again, but it’s at the south end of the street, where Phó Cơ Điều runs into Phạm Hữu Chí. It’s a couple blocks from the Cho Ray Hospital. Happy eating!

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tanya permalink
    August 5, 2011 03:16

    The mystery is solved – pork! That was such incredible food and by far the best street I have ever had here. And I agree, it was nights like that which make me absolutely love living here 🙂

  2. August 5, 2011 05:51

    Great. Here I am on a potentially very productive morning at 5:50 am and now all I can do is think about tamarind crabs and sop the drool on my keyboard. Nice.

    • August 5, 2011 06:31

      Mwahaha! My evil plan has worked!

      Just kidding. I’d hate to think that visions of tamarind crabs are preventing us from enjoying more of your amazing humor. Nice hearing from you either way 🙂

  3. Frank Holby permalink
    August 5, 2011 21:20

    Looks like good old American lobster to me. I liked to dip it in melted butter, but maybe your sauce is better. Not a bad price for a whole lobster. I didn’t realize lobsters grew in such warm climates as Saigon. We get ours from Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.Your nails still look beautiful. Grandpa

    • August 6, 2011 02:28

      Hey Grandpa, you’re right. It does look like an American lobster – especially that one claw I held up. They are, in fact, really big crabs – about the size of my hand with outstretched fingers. I’m not sure where they come from, but I see them a lot here. Judging by the rivers nearby, I don’t think I really want to know where they’re from. These would’ve also tasted good dipped in melted butter. Love you.

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