When the first Dungeness Crabs arrive at fish markets along the west coast each November, it feels like a party. Restaurants are rushing them onto menus from San Francisco to Seattle, sparking patrons who wait for the season all year round. Thanksgiving plans are built around crabs, bringing families together for participatory buttery meals that are certainly a cut above the turkey; at Christmas, crab feasts are also steadfast holiday traditions.
When I first arrived in the Bay Area, I was terribly ill-prepared for this new fascination with shellfish. I lived in Washington, DC and had worshiped the Altar of Maryland Blue Crabs for years, happily pummeling Old Bay encrusted seashells with a mallet and drinking National Bohemian buckets. And while the Maryland crab obsession is well justified, there really is no comparison.
“Dungeness crab is so soft and so big,” says Seattle author Naomi Tomky The Pacific Northwest Seafood Cookbook. “I hate the comparison to east coast crabs because they just aren’t the same and you don’t eat them the same way.”
Live Dungeness Crabs typically weigh between one and two pounds and are purple in color; after cooking they have a striking red shell with lots of soft, sweet meat that is perfectly nice with nothing but melted butter. There are plenty of other ways to enjoy these seasonal treats, however, from Garlic, Chili and Butter Roasts, Crab Rolls, Crab Chowder, Louie Crab, and more.
In Seattle and Oregon, heavy crabs are more readily available year round, thanks to cooler waters and longer seasons. âI think the vacation bond is much stronger in the Bay Area, as the crabs are only available for a short time and start around this time of year,â Tomky explains. “There’s also something very ceremonial about a whole crab, besides being big and beautiful and bright red when cooked.”
Eric Rivera, chef and owner of Addo in Seattle, offers a different take on Dungeness Crab by simmering it in garlic and chili, then adding Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, black garlic and black vinegar. He then adds sautÃ©ed wild mushrooms for an offbeat take on Pacific Northwest surf n ‘turf, lending an earthy component and hearty forest party vibes, and a generous dose of his own adobo seasoning – a reminder of its Puerto Rican heritage and flavors that find their way into dishes throughout its ever-changing menu. “None of it needs to be perfect or nice or anything,” says Rivera. “It’s not complicated. It just needs to taste good and make people happy. The dish is just another example of how versatile Dungeness Crabs are and how West Coasters, from top to bottom, are making it their own.
In San Francisco (and beyond), the Asian American community has also had a big impact on the ingredient’s popularity. for that, âsays Tomky. Asian restaurants like the Vietnamese institution Dungeness Island PPQ have been status symbols for years, serving roasted crabs with garlic, peppercorns, curry, and chili oils alongside egg rolls and fried banana ice cream.
Along the way, garlic noodles have become a traditional accompaniment to roasted whole crab, a dish whose origin is based on Vietnamese cuisine. At an Outer Sunset restaurant called Thanh Long, the recipe remains a jealously guarded secret by the family of the restaurant’s founder, Helene An. Nowadays, across the Bay Area, restaurants of all kinds of cuisines are on the menu, from Creole to soul food to Vietnamese, the adaptations are considered a regional delicacy.
“That much, [garlic noodles] are an American recipe â, says You David Phu, a Vietnamese American chef raised in Oakland. Phu’s version uses Keadama noodles from Sun Ramen, but in a pinch, he recommends spaghetti as a good replacement; he mixes the noodles with garlic, butter, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar and green onions until they are perfectly coated with the rich umami sauce. Accompanied by steamed crab, they are sweet and savory perfection.
âYou have to eat crab butter,â Phu says of the tomalli or âcrab fatâ found in the shell of creatures. âI recommend taking a hot bowl of steamed rice and pouring the crab butter over it. If you like uni, you’ll like crab butter.
Dinners at Swan Oyster Depot tend to agree: The iconic San Francisco restaurant queues for hours for a seat at its crowded little counter. An essential dish on the menu? Crab butter served directly in the shell, with plenty of sourdough bread for dipping. There, Dungeness Crab is served in myriad ways, but no more so than as part of âcrabsanthemum,â a plump plate of thigh meat, artfully arranged in the shape of a flower, and served with Louie sauce.
Lately, however, it has been a tough road for fans of the Pacific meat crab. In recent years, the commercial fishing season has been delayed for a variety of reasons, pushing back holiday crab feasts for many fishermen and frustrating fishermen whose livelihoods depend on their ability to bring back nets full of high-priced shellfish. . The 2021 Dungeness Crab season has been delayed in an effort to protect migrating whales and turtles. Fortunately, the season has arrived just in time for Christmas, keeping the traditions of coastal vacations alive.
âIt’s a great year to experiment with something new if you haven’t eaten Dungeness Crab while on vacation,â says Tomky. âMaybe you’re having a little party, and a Dungeness Crab is a great way to have a whole animal on your plate.â
Wild mushroom and Dungeness crab stew
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