In between watching the trunk of a sago palm be transformed into flour, sampling kinilaw (Philippine 'ceviche') at the fish market, and learning how sap of the nipa palm's flower stalk becomes vinegar (and liquor), we looked on as a Butuan native made a few of her favorite dishes. Our favorite of her favorites would have to be Buntaa Binuntaan, crabs stuffed with fresh coconut and their own fat and cooked in coconut milk.
Despite the fact that coconut oil is now deemed healthy, this dish is clearly over the top - lusher than lush and not something you'd eat every day. It's also the sort of dish that I can't imagine anyone, other than those with a serious aversion to coconut milk, not loving. And it's surprisingly easy to make, assuming you have access to a key ingredient: buko or young coconut, still soft enough to be scraped from it's shell in silky strands (which you probably do; I saw them for sale at a Whole Foods grocery store in Santa Fe, New Mexico and they can be found at many stores specializing in Southeast Asian ingredients).
Our hostess, the same lovely woman who hooked us up with the sago makers, learned this recipe from her mother and great grandmother. She started with about two and three quarter kilos of fresh crabs. Female crabs are what you want for this dish, because their roe is a key component (how do you tell a female from a male crab? Flip them over and compare the size of the 'flap' that covers the bottom half of their bodies; the female's 'flap' is wider). She put the crabs in the freezer for a few hours, until they were 'asleep' and immobile, and then pulled off their top shells.
After removing the crab's gills and cleaning the nasty bits from the top half of the shell
she carefully removed fat and roe and from both halves and set it aside.
It would be mixed with the shredded buko.
To this mixture she added a generous amount of garlic - pounded in a mortar, not chopped - chopped ginger, thinly sliced scallions (both white and green parts), chopped red onion, and salt.
She carefully cleaned the empty crab shell tops and stuffed them with the mixture.
More stuffing went into the cavities of the crab bodies created when their gills and fat and roe were removed.
After stuffing the crabs she reassembled them
and tied the halves together with kitchen string.
The liquid that remained on the platter after the crabs were stuffed was set aside for later.
The crabs went into a deep casserole, along with a good amount of crushed fresh ginger. Probably the most laborious part of this recipe is squeezing the coconut milk (assuming it doesn't come out of a can).
My favored method for extracting coconut milk involves hot water, an electric blender, and cheesecloth, but in this Butuan household it's all done with manpower - two 'pressings', the first for coconut cream and the second for the thinner coconut milk.
After placing the crabs in the pot our host added thin coconut milk to cover them by about two thirds. There was some coconut-crab mixture leftover after the crabs were filled; this she wrapped in tin foil (you could use a banana leaf) and placed in the pot as well. After bringing the coconut milk to a boil she covered the pot and left it to simmer steadily for about twenty minutes.
As soon as the shells of the crabs turned red red she added the coconut cream and the coconut-crab fat juices that had drained from the filling mixture and muddled the liquid in the pot a bit to mix.
Once the liquid came to a boil again the dish was finished.
The kitchen had filled with the heady aroma of good, spanking fresh seafood, peppery ginger, and coconut oil. The crabs came out of the casserole with bits of congealed coconut cream clinging to their shells, and there was plenty of coconut milk sauce to spoon over rice. I know that a number of other dishes were placed on the table that evening, but for the life of me I can't remember a single one. I passed the evening in a delirium, a crab and coconut milk-induced fog.
Buntaa Binuntaan (Butuan City Coconut-Stuffed Crabs in Coconut Milk)
I'm not including amounts because (1) I didn't do any measuring while our hostess prepared this dish and (2) this is very much a to-your-taste sort of food - if you hate ginger, omit it. If you love garlic, add lots. If you don't have red onions on hand, add more scallions. Just be sure you've got female crabs, that they're big enough to make prying apart, cleaning, and stuffing worth your effort, and that you've enough coconut milk and cream (if you're using canned consider thinning some with water to substitute for the second pressing coconut milk) on hand (a good way to guesstimate is to determine the capacity of the pot you'll use and then figure on at least half that amount in coconut milk).
female crabs, the bigger the better
a young coconut or two, meat scraped out and sliced into matchsticks or shredded
green onions, thinly sliced (white and green parts)
garlic, pounded to a mash or finely chopped
a small red onion, finely choped
ginger - some finely chopped, some thickly sliced and pounded in a mortar, with the side of a cleaver, or with the handle of a heavy knife
coconut milk and coconut cream
special equipment: kitchen string
- Put the crabs in the freezer for an hour or two, until they completely stop moving.
- Working quickly, pull the top shells off of the crabs, discard the inedible gook clinging to the inside of the shelll, and carefully scrape into a bowl all crab row and fat. Clean the crabs and their now-empty top shells under running water and set aside.
- Using your hands or a fork. mix the shredded coconut with the crab roe and fat, the green onions, garlic, red onion, salt to taste, and the chopped ginger.
- Fill each crab shell and body with the coconut-crab roe mixture, then reassemble the crabs and tie them together with kitchen string. Wrap any leftover filling in tin foil or a banana leaf to make a flattish packet. Set any liquid aside.
- Lay the crabs on top of each other in a deep casserole (use an appropriately-sized casserole; the crabs should be in at least two layers) and add thin coconut milk to cover them by about two thirds. Scatter crushed/pounded garlic on top of the crabs.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to a brisk simmer and cover the casserole. Check the crab's progress occasionally.
- As soon as the crabs turn pink pour in coconut cream and leftover filling 'juice'. Stir quickly just to mix, bring the liquid to a boil again, and then remove the casserole from the heat.
- Serve hot or warm, with lots of rice.