No trip to Kep is complete without a trip to the crab market. In fact, it’s probably the only thing worthwhile to do when visiting, but I would rate it as the best thing I did whilst on the southern coast of Cambodia. For two days, we feasted constantly on crab, shrimp, clams whilst washing it all down with Angkor beers.
After arriving a day late due to the bus company not actually booking me into their system (long story), I finally reached the guesthouse where I was staying close to the crab market. I had also arranged to meet Mick and Madz who I had been staying with in Phnom Penh. Whilst I was on my way in the bus, Madz sent me a photo of a plate of crabs signalling that they had already started the feasting without me. It was the last thing I wanted to see whilst cramped up in the back of a bus with a failing air conditioning unit and with a massive appetite. I had been waiting for this moment to devour lots of crab and my crew had already gotten a head start on me. So needless to say when I saw them, and was asked if I felt like some crab, the answer was a confident “HELL YEAH”, so we hastily made our merry way down to the market.
Unlike most markets in Asia, the crab market here is quite small. throughout the undercover area, most of the fish and other seafood vendors are located and at the end is the kitchen area where the produce that is bought is cooked to be consumed – piping hot and super fresh. In the outside area along the shoreline are the crab pots and the ladies selling the contents of the pots. On most occasions you’ll have three or four people surrounding each pot jostling for a good position to get to the crab. The remaining part of the wharf is lined with about ten or so restaurants that pretty much serve up the same seafood if you prefer to sit down in a restaurant type space. For us though, it was alfresco dining outside with produce we’d pick from the market.
The ordering process
So how doe s one procure the best crab? Well there are several ladies who will be selling the crabs. They are of the blue swimmer variety, a lot smaller than what you’d get at home but by God their sweet and delicate flesh such a joy to eat. The best approach is to go around to each of the ladies to scope out their catch. All of the crabs are secured and in the crab pots floating on the water. When you signal your intent to purchase they will haul the pots in and show you the contents.
The first thing you should do is check the condition of the crabs. Are they moving around? This will tell you if they are alive or not. You can also tell by seeing if there are any are floating upside down in the crab pot when they are towing it in. Once you’ve picked the pots with the best looking crabs then start negotiating price.You won’t get too much off but generally they start high and you just have to chip away. they would always mumble something or complain funnily in Vietnamese but at the end of the day, you’d be looking at $5kg for a kilo. Bargain eh?
Next is to pick your crabs. The ladies tend to pick these for you but don’t be afraid to throw back the small ones and say you want bigger ones. Also the crab claws are all tied with rubber bands so muster up some courage to pick out the larger ones yourself. It’s not putting your hand in a basket full of tarantulas.
The final step is to get them cooked. It will cost 25c to have them cooked and they will cook them in large pots over coals. Personally, I think the process of cooking them over the coals gives them a beautiful sweet smokey flavour. After you hand the delicious goods over to be cooked, find yourself a seat at the outdoor tables and they always somehow find where you are sitting. The only accompaniments that I suggest is a cold Angkor beer and a dipping sauce of Kampot (lots of it) pepper and lime. Kampot pepper to me is the king of peppers, with a florally bouquet, it lifts the flavour profile of any ingredient to the next level.
If you don’t mind a bit of crab roe like myself, how you can pick the female crabs from the males is by the flap on their belly side. The female flap is a broad and in the shape of a large shovel so she can store the thousands of delicious eggs. Naturally, the male’s flap is thinner, like the shape of a tower. Make sure you scoop out the salty goodness inside the main shell when you open the crab up. I hope this isn’t too much information for you because I’m getting salivating thinking about it now.
After freshening up, we decided to hit the sailing club for some happy hour cocktails. The outdoor setting makes the perfect location for sunset drinks and the jetty that reaches out a hundred metres into the bay makes it the prefect photo subject. It also happened to be Valentines Day that day and somebody had booked a special table at the end of the pier. I wonder if anybody got lucky that evening?
It turned out that happy hour wasn’t applicable to that day, so after a couple of drinks we returned to the market but for some restaurant action. Before you ask, yes we did order more crab. The quantities weren’t as abundant as the morning session and for me and atmosphere for me felt a bit stuffy and had a restrained. It wasn’t the same as handpicking your own crabs and the satisfaction of getting your hands dirty without anybody judging you whilst you’re trying to wrestle every morsel out of those tiny sea treasures.
I would have to rate the two days in Kep as one of the better times that I had in Cambodia. There weren’t any islands or beaches to laze around, some areas were actually dirty and smelly. All I had were some good mates, a pile of boiled crabs and prawns and plenty of cold beer. More importantly, the experiences reignited old childhood memories of when my parents were fisherman and would bring back hoards of shellfish and we’d stuff ourselves silly. Any the time when I lived in New Orleans as a kid and friends and relatives would come and gather in the room at the back of our Aunty’s house and we would all devour piles of chilly crawfish that were scattered over sheets of newspaper over the table. It’s these kinds of memories that I can see myself pursuing indefinitely on this incredible journey.
Do you love crab as much as I do?
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