At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles.
BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles.
Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


One of the pleasures of San Francisco is the crab season, which usually starts around early November and lasts through May or June. Just go down to the wharf and pick up some freshly steamed crabs to eat at home, or head into Chinatown and buy the little buggers fresh and kicking. Nothing beats a big bowl of steaming Cioppino with a hunk of crusty sourdough on the side, or you could simply whack 'em, crack 'em, and stir-fry them with ginger, scallions, garlic.......

[Cioppino, despite the Italian-sounding name, is not something they've ever tasted in Europe. It was invented right here in San Francisco by immigrant fishermen, and can only be prepared properly in the Bay Area.]

Angry crustacean, suitably dealt with, plus mayonnaise, melted butter, black-bean sauce, or chili-garlic sauce…… it's quite the best way of spending a long quiet evening that I know.

If you don't live here, you might be out of luck. Crab is not widely available away from the coast, and outside of South-East Asia not common either. It's almost unknown in Northern Europe, even in maritime countries.
In fact, the only time that most Europeans were ever exposed to crabs was when they were in the army, but since they've abolished the draft over there even that is no longer the case.

A lucky few may have visited a "Chinese Restaurant" and ordered Crab Foo Yung.
In its true version, Crab Foo Yung is actually a pretty decent dish, and a sensible way of stretching an expensive seasonal ingredient to serve a number of people.
It's also an easy choice here in San Francisco if you don't want the fuss of shells and messy fingers.

[Restaurant Peking]

As a youth living in North Brabant, the discovery that you could actually get good food at a Chinese restaurant was a revelation – it isn’t ALL fake-Indonesian chow cooked to the abysmal taste of the locals.
I remember some eppes lovely steamed fish with chilies and peanuts that I had at the 北京飯店 in ........ (some provincial Dutch burg of around thirty thousand inhabitants).

Some of the stuff on the regular menu was also very good. I really need to emphasize that.
The cooks were from Hong Kong, the head waiter was from Shanghai, the owners were from Zhejiang.
These are all places where real food is appreciated. Consequently that restaurant was, at that time, a shining beacon of light in a nasty cold dark culinary wasteland.

Oh, and the waitress who worked there for several months in 1972 was an absolute doll.

It was because of her that I encouraged my parents to forego cooking and get take-out more often.
Yes, a convenient suggestion. But oh so self-serving.

One of the dishes my mother liked was one she recognized from American Chinese restaurants: Crab Foo Yung.
Or, as it's called in Dutch, Foe Jong Hai.

[Fu Yung Hai - Velvety omelette with crab meat]

1兩 (one ounce) 蟹肉 (crab meat).
2支 (two stalks) 青蔥 (scallion).
4個 (four) 蛋 (eggs).
少許 (pinch) 鹽 Salt).
2大匙 (two tablespoons) 油 (oil).

½杯 (half a cup) 高湯 (superior stock).
1大匙 (one tablespoon) 醬油 (soy sauce).
½小匙 (half a teaspoon) 大白粉 (tapioca flour).
少許 (pinch) 糖 (sugar).

Remove all shell fragments from the crab meat, rinse and chop the scallion. Gently beat the eggs till smooth, add the pinch of salt, the oil, the crab meat, and the chopped scallion.
Mix the tapioca flour with a little cold water.
Heat some oil in the wok, pour in the egg mixture, cook till barely set, and slide onto a plate. Wipe any fragments of the omelette out of the wok, add a drizzle oil, and when hot pour in the superior stock and soy sauce, adding the pinch of sugar. After two minutes or so of cooking, stir in the dissolved tapioca flour and when the sauce becomes glossy pour it over the omelette. Add a drizzle of fragrant sesame oil and some minced cilantro if you must.

You will note that in this recipe tapioca flour is specified. But you could also use corn flour, it would simply require a little more. For the Chinese style superior stock you may substitute the normal chicken and bones stock. And feel free to use more crab meat.


I was already planning to post this recipe when I chanced upon an article in the Telegraaf (a Dutch newspaper).
Remarkably, it deals with Chinese people and crabs. The Chinese are very fond of crab.

"Chinezen trekken levende krab uit de muur
Nanjing - Chinese forenzen die geen tijd hebben om tijdens openingsuren van de supermarkt een verse, levende krab te halen, kunnen de dieren voortaan uit de automaat halen."

[Translation: Chinese pull live crab out of wall.
Nanjing - Chinese commuters who do not have time to purchase a fresh live crab during business hours at the supermarket can henceforth get the animals out of a vending machine.]


"In verschillende winkelcentra en metrostations staan speciale automaten met daarin levende krabben. De Chinese wolhandkrab is een lokale delicatesse in Nanjing, de hoofdstad van de oosterse provincie Jiangsu."

[Translation: In various shopping centers and metro stations there are special vending machines containing live crabs. The Chinese Mitten Crab is a local delicacy in Nanjing, capitol of the eastern province of Jiangsu.]

"De dieren worden in drie verschillende groottes verkocht en kosten tussen €1,70 en €6. De krabben zijn verpakt in plastic doosjes en worden op een constante temperatuur van 5 graden Celsius gehouden. Dit is genoeg om ze te verdoven, maar ook om ze in leven te houden. “Klanten waren eerst nogal sceptisch en vroegen zich af of de krabben nog wel in leven waren”, aldus Wu Zhendi, eigenaar van de Twin Lake Crab Company. “Maar nu dat we kunnen garanderen dat de beesten leven, blijven klanten terugkomen. We verkopen er dagelijks honderden.” "

[Translation: The animals are available in three different sizes and cost between one point seven Euros and six Euros. The crabs are packaged in plastic boxes and kept at a constant temperature of five degrees Centigrade (41 ° Fahrenheit). This is enough to stun them, but also enough to keep them alive. "Customers were a bit skeptical at first and wondered whether the crabs were still alive", according to Wu Zhendi, owner of the Twin Lake Crab Company, "but now that we can guarantee that the animals are alive, customers keep returning. We sell hundreds every day."]

"Een bord naast de automaat vertelt klanten dat, in het extreme geval dat er een dode krab tussen zit, ze er drie gratis zullen krijgen, aldus de lokale krant Guangzhou Daily. "

[Translation: A sign next to the vending machine informs customers that, in the rare case that there is a dead crab, they can get three free (live) ones, according to the local newspaper Guangzhou Daily.]

* * * * *

I wonder how 'local' the Guangzhou Daily actually is - there's more distance between Guangzhou and Nanjing (approx 1300 miles) than between Amsterdam and Marseilles. Several different Chinese language zones in between, and cultural differences besides. But, to the myopic Dutch, the geography of the rest of the world is both telescoped and condensed.

Comments placed underneath the article by Dutch readers were, of course, "instructive".

About half of the hundred-plus comments were venomous reflections of Dutch bigotry, ignorance, and a sneering sense of superiority, phrased in the most insulting and loathsome manner - a lot of Dutch people are racists who are absolutely convinced that they and they alone represent civilization, the rest of the world is unredeemably barbaric.
The rest of the reader comments were evenly divided between silly humour, Vegan-inspired sanctimony, and realists pointing out that the Dutch themselves were no saints when it came to food.


Many Dutch have no idea where their food comes from, but nevertheless see fit to criticize the rest of the world for its culinary practices. This is evident every time I hear tourists speaking Dutch on Grant Avenue and Stockton Street - at such moments I am always ever so grateful that at least they jabber in their own tongue, rather than venting their racism and praeconceptiva in English.
According to many Dutch tourists, live seafood being offered for sale is both barbaric and quaint, live birds are subject to unimaginable cruelty, and many of the ingredients that Chinese use are foul and distasteful.
Other than the picturesque colourfulness of 'those people', they have no good words for Chinatown at great and inordinate length.


Eels are sold live at the wekelijksche straatmarkt in Dutch cities and crustaceans are cooked live in their restaurants, many Hollanders in the provinces keep chickens in their back yards and casually twist the birds necks when they are required for dinner, and as far as odd ingredients are concerned, well, perhaps a nation that eats zure zult (sour headcheese), slavinken (bacon-wrapped fatty panfried ground pork), osseworst (raw red ox tartare), snert (pea porridge), deep-fried hockey pucks (bami schijf, nasi schijf, kroket), and puts mayonnaise on EVERYTHING should be more hesitant about their food opinions?

Mayonnaise, Fercrapsakes! Yeah, it's good stuff..... but good lord almighty!

Just another example of pissantry, I guess.


In the backwoods districts of the British Isles, the Benelux, Germany, and France, the local Chinese restaurateurs can reckon on a certain level of coarseness among the clientele, as well as a cheapness beyond compare.

So, rather than acquiring fresh crab, which their customers would not recognize or appreciate anyhow, they use tinned crab meat. And because their customers expect much for very little, they extend the dish with tinned peas. For that exotic touch, they'll throw in some tinned bamboo shoots, perhaps some tinned mushrooms, and lastly, to add both the colour and vulgarity that counters the native gloom, the sauce may be additionally tarted-up with ketchup, sugar, and red food colouring.
Then chopped ham is added - I may have mentioned that the customers expect much for very little, yes?

Truth be told, the best Chinese food in Europe is NOT something that many Europeans could possibly ever appreciate.
Particularly not most Dutch.

NOTE: If you wish, you may contact me directly:

All correspondence will be kept in confidence.

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  • At 6:20 AM, Anonymous Conservative apikoris said…

    "If you don't live here, you might be out of luck. Crab is not widely available away from the coast, and outside of South-East Asia not common either. "

    You know, we have crab on the east coast (of the US), and as far as I'm concerned, east coast blue crab is far superior to the watery crab legs sold in San Fransisco. And nowadays, because of the suburban sprawl of the Baltimore-Washington metro area, you can even find decent crabcakes in western Maryland and even parts of West Virginia.

    And, of course, lobster is even better than crab.

  • At 9:50 AM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    Tayere Conservative Apikoris,

    Yeah, I know the East-Coast also has crab - one can buy those live too in Chinatown.

    Crabcakes? I like mine. I don't like restaurant versions.

    Lobster? My now-ex significant other LOVES lobster. I'm not that taken with the beast. It's okay, I suppose. I would far rather have a big bucket of steamed mussels. Which, remarkably, are cheap as all git-out in Holland and Flanders, yet relatively pricey over here. The little buggers grow everywhere - I cannot figure out why they cost so much.

  • At 9:54 AM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    "...far superior to the watery crab legs

    Watery crab legs? Those are Alaskan spider crabs! WHERE have you been eating?

    Thanksgiving through Chanukkasmis for real people means crab. Meaty Dungeness crab. Bought feisty and live at a real people's market.

    Supermarket crab is whatever they could get at a bargain because it sat in a warehouse frozen for ten years.


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