Tiny crab soup does a body good

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At H's Cua Dong Restaurant, paddy crabs can be found everywhere.

But you won't see them anywhere.

Instead, the silver-dollar sized, freshwater crustaceans have been pounded into a paste (shell and all) and strained into savory broths that flavor the vegetables, soups, and dipping sauces that make up the menu.

Around twenty field crabs are required for a single bowl which is served with little winged beans and sliced green bananas.

Every once in a while, you will find a white, spongy sliver of the meat in one of the dishes alluding to the tiny source of this huge flavor.

The taste is like no other.

During Ho Chi Minh City's wet, sultry summers, there's nothing like a hot pot flavored with the little brown crabs.

The pesky critters have been known to cut into rice yields in the Mekong Delta. It's no surprise that southern farmers view crab catching as both a cheap protein harvest and a good gardening practice.

WHERE TO GO

Brown paddy crabs can be found at the following restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City:

* H's Cua Dong
18A/5/A1 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1

* Cua 9 mon
290/3 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 3

* Ho Cau Phu Huu
816/46 Nguyen Duy Trinh Street, Phu Huu Ward, District 9

The easiest way to eat them is to toss heaps of crabs in salt and then roast them on hot coals. The bodies are cracked open and the roe, meat and lungs are eaten like oysters.

Sometimes, bunches of crabs are simply boiled until the meat separates from the body. The resulting mush is then dipped into prepared fish sauce and eaten.

In the North, they are fried.

In and around Cambodia, the little crabs are sometimes fermented in huge jars. The resulting fishiness factor overwhelms most Western palates. But, in rural communities, the fermented freshwater crabs are heralded as healthy snack for expecting mothers.

In the city, the most popular iteration of this creature is known as bun rieu cua (rice vermicelli and sour crab soup).

Cua dong (known, alternatively as paddy, field and mud crabs) are first soaked in fresh water to clean them of sand and grit.

After being smashed with a mallet, the crab's roe is extracted and stir fried with onions to produce a fragrant base. The rest of the creature is ground, with mortar and pestle.

Vermicelli noodles are flash boiled and added to the broth which bears the sour flavor of tamarind. Bowls of the noodles are served piping hot with chili, split water spinach and lettuce.

The soup can combine with many other vegetables such as hoa thien ly (Tonkin creeper flower), rau ngot (sweet leaf bush), rau day (jute plant) and rau sam (pigweed).

Dipping sauces are prepared by boiling the crabs with ginger, chili and fresh bamboo sprouts.

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