I bought some of these crabs once when I was first in Hanoi.
In the honeymoon days.
Don't get me wrong, I'm still entranced with the culinary scene here but when one lands in Vietnam after years of sampling the cuisine in what I suspected may not always have been its most authentic form, I did go a bit ga-ga when confronted with the real deal. The range of herbs was infinitely wider than what I'd experienced in Melbourne, with Vietnam's markets resplendent in so much leafy green that surely its harvest was a leading cause of global warming. All those different rices shaped in perfect geometric cones pointed skywards, predominantly white. But wasn't white rice just white rice? Clearly not, I was to learn.
I don't want to go on much about live animals in market-places as I've covered that ground before. But after the relatively sterile environs of Melbourne's markets where hardly a chicken feather is seen let alone ruffled, I initially found the live produce sections of Vietnam's markets more like a visit to to the farm or the zoo.
On one such early visit to Hanoi's now re-designed Hang Da market, while I couldn't contemplate witnessing a bird having its throat cut before me nor a fish thwacked dead with a foot-long baseball bat, I thought I could deal with a pair of restrained crabs. In a bag on the way home, they were relatively well-behaved, their legs and more importantly their pincers tied with rope fashioned from plant matter. The awareness of having a living creature, however, with the jerks and stirrings of an unborn baby amongst one's shopping was disconcerting to say the least. It did dawn on me that I had taken on some higher responsibility, one which during the journey from market to home I was having serious misgivings about.
It was as if I was back at primary school in science class, that one when you have to take the egg home for the weekend and bring it back on Monday without a crack in it.
Once at home, the crabs went in the sink and I sought out the experts at the internet cafe for a recipe and a dignified way to kill them. I read phrases like "crabs are fairly strong for their size" and "scrubbing down the crab can be fairly intimidating" and "the crab will threaten you with its claws". I read about lifting flaps, screwdrivers, piercing and draining. I continued scrolling down half-expecting to find reference to safety glasses and protective clothing! The gastronomic part of the plan, crab in tamarind sauce, seemed like a footnote compared to what I would have to carry out beforehand.
Armed with print-outs titled 'how to kill a crab' and a slew of recipes, I returned home to stare down those crustaceans, give them a bit of intimidation of my own. But the whole plan started to go array when I checked the sink.
One was missing.
A crab unable to move because it was in a strait-jacket was unaccounted for. It goes without saying that determining the thought-processes of a crab gone AWOL was not at that stage in my realm of experience. Could it have gone to the toilet, I thought. Perhaps it was making a run for the coast? In reality, I was freaking, already imagining a mad chase not unlike those I'd wagered against my furry arch enemy, Mr Rat. This time it would be an aggressive scuttling exoskeleton, moving sideways out from under something, pincers at the ready. And I would be ready to fling my tea towel over it to subdue it, rueing that I hadn't printed the pages titled 'how to catch a crab'.
That's if I could have located the bastard. In a two-roomed apartment with a small bathroom and kitchen, it was nowhere to be found. Exhausted and having lost my appetite, I carefully placed the other crab on the bottom shelf of the fridge where it would survive for a few days, according to the experts. It would take me that long to recover from the ordeal and I hadn't even raised a weapon in anger to that point. One crab was missing but none had been killed or eaten.
Two nights later, I was reading on the couch, the escapee crab the farthest thing from my mind. A vague twitching or scatching entered my consciousness and persisted even though I attempted to will it away. My initial reaction was rat and I assumed my regular posture for that circumstance; standing on the sofa, slightly unhinged. From the shoe-rack behind the front door, the noise was irregular but frequent.
And then I remembered the crab with some relief. Up between and behind the winter shoe collection, the crab was wedged, only half restrained by the market vendor's rope, which was still attached, allowing me to drag it into the kitchen at a safe distance. I felt like administering a hanging. Instead I recalled something else I'd read in the 'how to kill a crab' pages, something about 15 minutes in the freezer putting the crab in a sleeping state.
I put them in seven years ago. And, crab in tamarind sauce is a dish that I recommend be taken in restaurants.