There are not many Vietnamese noodle soups that are predominantly consumed with only a spoon but Bánh canh cua (Crab Tapioca Noodle Soup) is one of them. The soup is thick and gelatinous but not dense, it’s rich in pork and crab flavour but well balanced by the aromas of white pepper, spring onion and sawtooth coriander. The noodles are thick and have a bit of bite to them, a unique blend of rice and tapioca flour.
Spanner crabs, or as they’re sometimes referred to Aussie red crabs, are sustainably sourced in the sandy coastal regions; mainly off the North Eastern coast between Gladstone, Queensland and Ballina, New South Wales. In recent times, they are very popular amongst the Vietnamese-Australian community.
For me,the spanner crab meat’s point of difference is its degree of sweetness in relation to its texture. For the crab connoisseur, crab meat which is firm with a high degree of sweetness is most often or not, a winner. For those not familiar with spanner crabs, the meat is easy to pick from the shell and available almost all year round. These factors triggered a light bulb moment for me one day that became bánh canh cua huỳnh dế - Spanner crab tapioca noodle soup. In this recipe, the spanner crabs are tossed in oil with thai shallots, prawn heads, garlic, annatto oil and spring onions, then coated with a thick pork-based gravy that is flavoured with garlic, shore crabs, prawns and fish sauce.
The pork bone broth is simmered gently for 2 hours with your usual Vietnamese aromats and seasoning. What happens next is what makes this Vietnamese noodle soup unique to any other. Potato starch is mixed with a tablespoon of water to create a white slurry that transforms the broth to a gravy-like consistency.
Shore crabs are then added to add an extra level of umami; a savoury taste that I, like many, find hard to describe in words. Shore crabs are typically seen as a marine pest in Australia but considered a delicacy in Vietnam. Most commonly, it is used to create the Riêu (minced freshwater crab) in Bún Riêu Vietnamese rice noodle soup with tomato and crab.
Bánh canh cua huỳnh dế is best consumed immediately after cooking, to ensure the crab is not overcooked and the noodles retains their distinct chewy texture in the warm gravy. Garnish with a healthy pinch of sawtooth coriander, a spoonful of minced shore crab, white pepper and spring onions.
Check out the full recipe out below and do yourself a favour, for flavour!
Pork bone broth
2kg pork neck bones
3 chicken frames
1/2 bunch spring onions
5g rock sugar
10g dried shrimp
30g potato starch
7 live spanner crabs (top shell removed and main body quartered)
200g prawn heads
3 Thai shallots
3 garlic cloves
15ml cooking oil
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon cracked white pepper
2 teaspoons chicken powder
1 teaspoon anchovy salt (optional)
2 tablespoons annatto oil
1/2 bunch spring onions cut in 5cm batons
shore crab roe
1 can straw mushrooms
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon annatto oil Annatto oil
10g annatto seeds
30ml Cooking oil
1kg bánh canh noodles (thick rice tapioca noodles)
1kg tiger prawns
1 can/punnet of quail eggs
500g congealed pork blood, cooked (optional)
1kg shore crabs
Pork bone broth & Gravy
Add pork bones and chicken frames to a large pot of boiling water for 2-3 minutes, then drain to remove impurities. Refill the pot with water and bring to a boil.
Add remaining ingredients and simmer for 1.5- 2 hrs, then strain well, reserving the broth.
Add crushed shore crab water and minced shore crab meat (see shore crabs) to the broth and return to boil . When cooked, the minced shore crab will rise to the top. Collect with a fine sieve and set aside. Allow the remaining broth to gently simmer and season with chicken powder, salt and fish sauce. Bring to a boil again then simmer.
Gently poach the prawns in the broth for 1-2 mins or until just cooked through then remove. Thicken the broth with the potato starch mixed with 1 tablespoon of water, until a gravy-like consistency is achieved. Add the noodles and annatto oil, then mix well.
Add congealed pork blood, quail eggs, spring onion batons and warm through for a few minutes, then follow with the tossed spanner crabs (see spanner crabs) and stir fried straw mushrooms (see straw mushrooms). Warm through for another few minutes then serve.
Garnish with sawtooth coriander, cracked white pepper, spring onion batons and a spoonful of the minced shore crab.
Discard top shell, separate roe and tomalley from crab and cut main body into quarters. Collect the roe and tomalley and set aside.
In a mortar and pestle crush crab quarters well in batches.
Place in a fine sieve, submerge in a medium bowl of water and agitate for a few minutes with the back of a spoon to infuse the flavour and extract the crab meat.
Set the shore crab water aside.
Place spanner crabs in the freezer for 1 hour to sleep, then remove the top shell and gills, and cut the main body into quarters.
In a large saucepan or wok, fry red shallots on medium heat until golden, then add prawn heads and shore crab roe and cook on medium-high heat for 3 mins. With a potato masher, squeeze all the juice from the prawn heads into the the wok, then remove the heads.
Add annatto oil and garlic, cook on medium until garlic is fragrant, then add quartered spanner crabs and spring onion batons. Toss on high for 2-3 mins or until well coated, then set aside.
In a frypan or wok, stir fry straw mushrooms with annatto oil, salt and chicken powder for 2- 3 minutes then set aside.
1. In a small frypan, warm cooking oil and the annatto seeds, on medium heat until the mixture bubbles.
Remove from heat and allow annatto seeds to steep in the oil for a further 2-3 minutes. train and set the oil aside.