Korean Flower Crab, Maryland Blue Crab, different, but both TASTY!!!!
Even though I really really really love Korean food, last weekend I had the chance to share some of my home cuisine with some people here. You see, I’m a Marylander, and if there is one thing that Maryland is known for other than horrible baseball teams that haven’t won the World Series since 1983, it’s the Maryland Blue Crab. Blue crabs are important source of pride and heritage for Marylanders so much that we call people who use knives or other implements to open the crab after cooking “rookies” or “tourists” and scorn them for their crab eating incompetence. Crabs are so important to Maryland that there’s even a picture of a crab prominently featured on the Maryland drivers’ license.
But you aspiring marine biologists out there might be saying right now, “But Seoul Searcher, there aren’t any Maryland Blue Crabs in Korea!” And that’s true, there aren’t. If there were they would probably be very expensive, being imported from Maryland and all. But simply because the Maryland Blue Crab is native to um… Maryland doesn’t mean that Korea doesn’t have a similar type of crab for me to cook eat, and impress my Korean friends with my culinary prowess.. (Ok the only thing that makes a blue crab a Maryland Blue Crab is if it is caught in Maryland territorial waters, but the species itself is native to the western Atlantic Ocean.)
Okay so what is this Korean crab that I speak of? Well, Koreans call this the flower crab (꽃게). I assume it is because of all the white spots on the carapace that kind of look like tiny flowers, but I am not entirely sure. As with all seafood, there is a specific season in which it is usually sold. I’ve found that flower crabs often are cheapest in June-August. But even then, if you are in Seoul 1Kg of living flower crab can cost you about $10 if you are lucky, and that’s only 2 or 3 crabs! If you are dumb enough to go to the biggest department store’s grocery section and buy living flower crab in the dead of winter, then you can expect to pay $70 or $80 per Kg. Fellow Marylanders cry in shame, where in Maryland we can get crabs steamed by the dozen for around $30 or so in a restaurant. I remember when I was a kid there were times when one could buy an entire bushel (between 60 and 100) of living Maryland Blues for around $50, although I am sure that is much more expensive now.
How can the average Korean person afford to eat steamed flower crab at those ridiculous prices?!??!?! Well the answer is that they don’t usually eat steamed crabs. They generally use flower crabs as a base for soup, or pickled and eaten raw as panchan. So, two or three crabs will go into a family’s soup, and they’ll also be eating lots of rice and other panchan with their meal, so it won’t be necessary to buy a dozen or so. This also makes it less important that the crab is still alive, as a frozen crab means the same to a soup as a living one does. Not so in steaming, where the crab meat’s texture will be ill affected if frozen, and the crab will smell of ammonia if it has been dead for too long before it has been steamed.
Anyway, I found myself in a seafood market and lo and behold there they were, Korean flower crabs, at the more than fair price of \8000/Kg (about $7.16). My mouth began to water as the sight of the cement tank that held hundreds of the feisty little dudes. I bought enough for everyone I was with to have two. This is unheard of in Maryland, as any real Marylander who doesn’t eat more than 6 in one sitting isn’t worth his salt, but then again flower crabs are slightly larger. Don’t ask me why, but the last time I went back to Maryland, I brought some Old Bay (the universal Maryland spice that is the most vital ingredient when cooking crabs, well besides the crab itself.) and distributed it to my friends as presents. Being that no Korean recipe calls for Old Bay, they hadn’t touched it. So I was prepared for exactly this situation.
So when we got home, I cooked the crabs the best way I knew how. In Maryland, the recipe calls for beer, vinegar, water, and Old Bay.
The crabs are to be steamed, so using a pot with a steamer, I mixed equal proportions of the liquids in the bottom of the pot, placed in the steamer, and turned the crabs upside down and placed them in the pot. Each layer of crab is then sprinkled with Old Bay until all the crabs are in the pot and you can close the lid. Yes, it’s quite sad that the crabs will be kicking and screaming as the water gets hotter and hotter and they can’t escape, nor will they instantly die. I’ve heard you can kill them first with an icepick or screwdriver. I’ve also been told it’s best to make the water boil first, then use a steamer basket to lower the crabs into the preheated steamer so that they die more quickly. But, I had neither a steamer basket nor do I know the exact way to kill them without damaging them too much. I’m mainly a crab eater, not a crab steamer.
For some reason I can’t seem to get this part right, because all stoves and pots are different, but it seems the crabs on the bottom turn out to be overcooked, whereas the ones on the top are just right. Most online recipes call for the crabs to be cooked for 30 to 40 minutes, but if there is too much liquid in the bottom then that’s too long. If there isn’t enough liquid then it will all evaporate in that time. Again, I’m mainly a crab eater, not a crab maker. I recommend checking constantly to see that your crabs have changed colors from their normal brownish grayish bluish greenish color, to orangish red and taking them out as soon as that has happened. You can also break off a leg from one of the ones on the top and test it to see if it’s done. Mine were all finished, and the group of people I was with all marveled at the wonderful delicious taste of a traditional Maryland recipe that isn’t all that difficult to begin with, but still gained me culinary accolades. A huge feast was had by all, and had we also had some sweet Maryland corn and watched the Orioles lose on TV then I would have totally forgotten I was in Korea.
So, what’s the difference between Maryland Blues and flower crabs? Well, flower crabs are fatter and they have more back fin meat. The section of the crab’s body that is connected to the back fin is the most rewarding part of the crab based on the effort it takes to get the meat. Thus it is possible to get more meat, more easily from the flower crab. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is tastier though. In fact, an important part of a crab’s flavor is the juice that their fat, eggs and internal organs make when they are steamed. More meat means less juice on the meat.
People all around the world love lobster and king crab, but honestly they don’t compare to the Maryland Blue crab or crabs similar to it. I highly recommend to anyone anywhere that they try crabs the Maryland way.