Tamarind Crabs Somewhere in Saigon

The gentleman in the top picture is Mr. Tamarind Crab.  Geoffrey says he’s been in the same out-of-the-way location making the same stunning crab dish for years, but watching him move elegantly around his perfectly organized outdoor kitchen, seeing the way he cooks and observing him tasting the sauce at each stage, I had the sense that I was watching a chef with a past that might have included a stint in a grand restaurant under the tutelage of a great chef.  

While there were other very good dishes to eat here, including these beautiful little clams cooked with lemongrass that we dipped into a salt-pepper-and-lime sauce and ate like oysters

Clams   

the whole point of the evening was the crabs, large, fresh, wriggly and clawing crabs, which the fishermen had tied up with twisted cloth, and which the crabman cleaves into pieces with speed and inspiring precision.  The whole operation takes seconds and it all happens on this round of wood

 Cutting board

I’m going to describe what the chef (I think he merits that title) did with those crabs and it will sound so simple.  In fact, it was simple, but I know something about simple dishes like this: they’re made quickly only because it’s taken a lifetime to perfect them. 

The first thing that goes into the fiery-hot wok is freshly rendered pork fat with teensy bits of pork.  When that’s sizzling, the crabs are tossed in and turned and turned.  Next, the chef begins the sauce by adding lots and lots, then lots more garlic — whole unpeeled cloves — salt and pepper and a generous amount of sugar.  When the sauce bubbles furiously and the sugar caramelizes, he tastes it for balance and makes his first adjustments.  After the tarmarind is added, he tastes it again.  Here are the crabs, glossy with the thick, sticky  tamarind sauce, right before they’re removed from the wok

Crabs in molten sauce  

I hope you can imagine how delicious they are because every time I’ve tried to describe them, I’ve found myself sounding singularly inarticulate, smiling rather ridiculously and just repeating “They’re amazing!”

Since these crabs are eaten with your fingers — the most wonderfully messy meal I’ve had in years — and since the sugar in the sauce is almost hot enough to turn into hard candy, you can’t dig in the instant the dish comes to the table.  But waiting’s not as hard as you’d imagine — in fact, it’s a pleasure.  See all that sauce around the crabs?

Crab and bread  

You spend the wait- time sopping it up with soft roll after soft roll.  I think this is a dish that the Michelin Man would say’s “worth the voyage” — it certainly was for us.

Here’s the address of the “restaurant”.  I don’t have a name for it and I don’t know what district it’s in (although I do know it’s near Chinatown), but I have a feeling that determined food lovers will find it:

13 Pho Co-Dieu

Thank you again, Geoffrey.  And thank you Joshua for the wonderful pictures.

 

Dorie Greenspan

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