Three generations have a hand in creating this Chinese garlic crab dish
When it comes to blue crabs used in a favorite family recipe, fresh is always best, islander Denise Letsos said.
Letsos lives on Galveston Island’s West End and takes advantage of the abundance of blue crab in local waters to make a classic Chinese garlic crab, a traditional family dish.
Letsos sends her son Fisher, 12, and husband, Mike, to set traps baited with chicken parts into West Galveston Bay, days in advance of preparation. They harvest crabs and rebait traps as needed over the course of several days, depending on how many people will be feasting.
“We need a large cooler full to feed my family,” Letsos said.
Fresh remains a theme throughout the preparation of this dish.
“You don’t get the same depth of flavor from powdered or granulated ingredients,” Letsos said. “For the best result, use only fresh components.”
She learned how to make the dish from her father and his three brothers, owners of Happy Buddha in Galveston since 1971. The brothers Tong — William, Hardy, Nelson and Frank — brought original family recipes with them when they moved to Houston from Hong Kong in the early 1960s.
“I learned how to cook from my grandfather when I was 13,” Hardy Tong, 65, said. “I’ve been cooking this dish for over 50 years.”
And he’s proud of his niece, Denise, and his grand-nephew Fisher’s participation in family meal-making, he said.
“It’s important to keep traditions alive and create memories for younger generations,” he said.
Cooking has always been a family affair, Letsos said of her ever-growing, but tightly knit clan.
“Everybody helps,” she said. “If you’re eating, you’re doing.”
Family gatherings can include more than 100 people and require up to the same amount of crabs, Letsos said. If you don’t plan on fishing your crabs freshly out of the bay, Letsos suggests shopping at your local fish market, during peak season, when crabs are at their cheapest.
In the Tong-Letsos family, the garlic crab is served informally and eaten with bare hands. That includes the sides of white rice and cold beer.
“We throw plastic cloths over the tables and we toss the food onto the table and dig in all at once,” she said. “The smell is divine and we usually can’t wait to get into it. We eat family style, with our fingers and let the sauce run down our arms. It’s a slop fest, but who cares? We’re amongst family.”
Tong Family Chinese Garlic Crab
3 dozen blue claw crabs, cleaned and halved
1⁄3 cup fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced
6 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup oyster sauce
2 cups chicken stock
4 cups cornstarch
1 gallon vegetable oil
1 bunch green onions (scallions), sliced on an angle, for garnish
Store live crabs on ice before cleaning. Clean crabs by removing lungs and guts. Cut crabs in half. Crack claws with the back of a chef’s knife. Toss crabs in cornstarch.
Heat oil in wok on very high heat, about 400 F. Toss crabs constantly, until they are cooked on all sides, about 3-5 minutes. Drain crabs.
Drain and discard excess oil, leaving a small film in the wok. Sauté ginger and garlic until lightly toasted, about 30 seconds. Add oyster sauce and chicken stock. Cook until thickened, about 1-3 minutes. Add cooked crab.
Garnish with green onion. Serve with white rice and cold beer.