Look What Was Under the Tree!

Today’s entry started its way to us Christmas morning, when gift cards were among the presents.  Over the couple months that followed, those cards produced mail-order merchandise, including King Crab legs and tamarind paste.  Their selection had a purpose, as they’re the headliners in Kdam Char Umpey, or Cambodian Tamarind Crab.

As with so many recipes featured over the past year-and-a-half (Really?  You’ve kept it going that long?), this one comes from Khmer Krom Recipes.   This is where curiosity led; a quest for overlooked national cuisines eventually became an obsession.  Cambodians may account for barely a quarter-percent of the world’s population, but their dishes fill these pages.

Anyway, Alaskan King Crab isn’t an especially Cambodian ingredient, yet it works beautifully for this dish.  The sweet, substantive meat holds its own against the other assertive ingredients, among them fiery Thai bird chilies, as well as black pepper, garlic and scallions, each providing tingly bite.

This isn’t a particularly spicy dish, though, as sweet and tangy tamarind paste enrobes everything.  All the ingredients balance nicely, and the competing flavors accentuate each other.  No single taste dominates except, maybe, for the succulent, slightly briny crab.

Don’t allow King Crab’s cost to intimidate those of you who don’t have …means, or wonderfully generous gift-givers.  Substitutes abound, including a pack or two of crab sticks (surimi), which should set you back only a few dollars.  They’d serve well as a stand-in.

After all, the dish pictured above substitutes King Crab for the Maryland Blue Crabs in the source recipe.  Pulling back another layer, those Blue Crabs in turn fill in for the Mud Crabs the original Cambodian instructions doubtless specifies.  Good cooking’s all about such improvisation, using the best ingredients on hand to create pleasing results.

However, because two of you were among this blog’s selfless benefactors this Christmas, luscious King Crab and real Southeast Asian tamarind paste were on hand.  They made this dish memorable.  Thank you!


Kdam Char Umpey

(Tamarind Crab)

  • 3 Maryland Blue Crabs (*1)
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste (*2)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoons rice wine (*3)
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil (*4)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 scallions, trimmed and cut to 1-inch lengths
  • 4 hot peppers, sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

In a small bowl, mix the tamarind paste, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce and wine and set it aside.

Heat a wok over high heat.  After the wok is hot, add the oil and garlic; stir well.  Add the crab and stir well.  Add the tamarind sauce you created earlier and stir to thoroughly coat the crab.  Finally, add the scallions, hot peppers and black pepper.  Stir well then serve over rice.


1 – This works out to little over half a pound of crabmeat.  The original recipe calls for using whole Blue Crabs in their shells, and includes instructions on preparing them.  I omitted this step to streamline the recipe.  Besides, shelling King Crabs differs from preparing Blue Crabs.  If you use crab sticks, no shelling is necessary, of course.

2 – Tamarind paste is available at Asian groceries and online.  An acceptable substitute may be obtained by using a mixture of equal parts A-1 Steak Sauce and lime juice.

3 – Having no rice wine on hand, I used sherry.

4 – As usual when preparing Asian dishes, I used peanut oil.




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