There’s a genre of food that I can’t help but categorise as “restaurant cooking”.
It’s not because those dishes – the category also includes French onion soup, beef Wellington and grilled oysters, by the way – are impossible to cook at home, nor that they’re not rewarding to do so. It’s not even that they have an inherent fussiness that makes them ill-suited to small urban kitchens. If anything, that classification system is born of a kind of complacency – because I have only ever had these dishes while out on the town (and maybe also because they carry a whiff of the retro), it seems somehow unfathomable that I could just… make them myself. Or that they could be enjoyed without the trappings
of a white tablecloth and expensive glassware.
Crab cakes are another member of that category – or they were, at least, until this week.
A crab cake is not a technically challenging item to prepare. I know that now. If you want to be crude about it, making them pretty much consists of dumping crab meat and a bunch of aromatics and binding agents into a big bowl, smooshing it all together, and packing them into tight little patties, which you can coat with additional egg wash and breadcrumbs, if you so choose (I do) and pan-fry later. Somehow, this all seemed beyond me, until my partner had an idea: What if we took the basic flavours of one of his most beloved dishes, Singaporean chilli crab, but added them to crab cakes instead?
And so these Southeast Asian crab cakes – which don’t share that much with Singaporean chilli crab, in the end – were born. Never mind the comparison: Each morsel here is revelatory, so light and crisp but sweetly unctuous at the same time, zipping with lime and sambal oelek, ginger and soy sauce, spring onions and fish sauce. Despite the strength of those flavours, it’s worth going in on the best-quality white crab meat you can find – while the hearty restaurant crab cakes of my imagination were often densely packed with mashed potato, these put the spotlight firmly on the crab, no filler required.
On the side, we enjoyed these with a light green salad, dressed with additional lime, fish sauce and sambal to bring those flavours home. We also paired them with a briney, tart gose – and this one, by new-to-me New Zealand brewery Urbanaut, brought a real electric freshness. Made with horopito and kawakawa – two native New Zealand ingredients long used by Maori, which add their own herbal, peppery dimension to the beer – this gose’s tartness marries up with the crab cakes’ Southeast Asian profile, as much as it helps cut through their richness.
As long as the sun’s around, this is what I’ll be eating over and over for the rest of the summer. Crab cakes? They’re now definitively “home food”.
Southeast Asian Crab Cakes
Serves 4 (Makes roughly 14 crab cakes)
For the crab cakes:
400g white crabmeat, picked over for shells
150g panko breadcrumbs, divided
3 eggs, divided
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, peeled and minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bird’s eye chilli, minced
10g coriander, finely chopped
3 spring onions, white and green parts finely chopped
2 tablespoons mayonnaise, preferably Kewpie
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon tomato purée
2 teaspoons sambal oelek
2 teaspoons fish sauce
Zest and juice of 1 lime
½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
Fine sea salt, to taste
150ml vegetable oil (approximately)
For the salad
80g mixed salad greens (I used pea shoot and babyleaf salad
30g fresh coriander leaves
30g mint leaves
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 ½ tablespoons light brown sugar
1-2 teaspoons sambal oelek, to taste
For the sambal mayonnaise:
100g mayonnaise (preferably Kewpie)
1 tablespoon sambal oelek (or additional, to taste
1. First, prepare the crab cakes. Add the crab meat to a large nonreactive bowl, alongside 75g of panko breadcrumbs, two eggs, the ginger, garlic, chilli, coriander and spring onions. Mix gently to combine. Next, add the mayonnaise, soy sauce, tomato purée, sambal oelek, fish sauce, lime zest and juice, white pepper and roughly ½ teaspoon of sea salt. Mix until everything is evenly incorporated.
2. Line a baking tray (that can fit in your fridge) or large plate with parchment paper. To form the crab cakes, measure out 50g of crab mixture for each. Compress gently in your hands until the crab cake resembles a slightly flattened puck. Place on the prepared tray and continue until all the crab cakes are formed. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge; leave to chill for 30–45 minutes, which will help prevent them from falling apart when frying.
3.As the crab cakes chill, prepare the salad. To a medium bowl, add the salad leaves and the fresh herbs and toss to mix. In a separate small bowl, add all the dressing ingredients and whisk to combine. Taste, and adjust seasoning if needed. Don’t dress the salad until right before serving, to ensure the salad leaves don’t wilt.
4. Next, prepare the sambal mayonnaise. Add the ingredients to a ramekin or small bowl and mix to combine. Taste and add any more mayonnaise or sambal to ensure the flavour balance is right for you. Set aside.
5. Once the crab cakes have had time to chill, remove from the fridge. In one small bowl, crack the remaining egg and whisk until uniform. In a second small bowl, add the remaining 75g panko breadcrumbs. Going one at a time, and handling the crab cakes gently, add each to the egg bowl and gently flip until evenly coated. Let the excess drip off before transferring to the panko bowl. Sprinkle over the panko crumbs and gently flip the crab cake, ensuring it is evenly coated. Set aside on a plate and repeat with the remaining crab cakes.
6. Line a large plate with paper towels and set next to the hob. Place a large, heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat and add the vegetable oil (it should come roughly ¼-½ inch up the pan; add more if needed). Once hot, turn the heat down to medium-low. Add one crab cake as a tester – it should start bubbling quite vigorously as soon as it’s placed in the pan. Cook for roughly 3 minutes on the first side until it’s a nice, even golden-brown, before gently flipping with a spatula and cooking on the reverse for 3 minutes more, or until golden-brown (if it’s browning too quickly, turn down the heat a bit). Sear off the edges of the crab cake quickly, if it’s looking too pale, and transfer to the paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with the remaining crab cakes, cooking in 3-4 batches, depending on the size of your pan.
7. Just before serving, pour the dressing over the salad and toss until all the leaves are coated. Divide between four plates. Do the same with the crab cakes, before adding a good dollop of sambal mayo to each portion. Serve right away.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beer hound and all-around lover of tasty things. When she's not cracking open a cold one, she's probably cooking up roasted lamb with hummus. Or chicken laksa. Or pumpkin bread. You can follow her at @clairembullen. For more recipes like this, sign up to our HB&B All Killer No Filler beer subscription - you'll receive Claire's recipe and food pairings, plus beer reviews and expert tasting notes with up to 12 world-class beers every month.