Hunting for white asparagus at the start of the summer is not exactly orthodox. But that is what I found myself doing a few days ago. It’s not that I haven’t had any asparagus this spring. There was an abundance of green asparagus in the farmer’s markets and Pathmark across the street from where we live. Over the last few months I’ve had them steamed with butter, grilled with olive oil, dressed with Hollandaise sauce and mixed in fried rice. But a few days ago I spotted some fresh and peppy looking mud crabs in Chinatown, which instantly suggested “white asparagus and crabmeat soup” like those found in many traditional Chinese restaurants in Asia. This notion suddenly became an obsession and I immediately bought some of the crabs and went on a quest for white asparagus.
I fondly remember this elegant soup from many banquets when I was still living in Singapore. It was often included in family holiday or birthday celebrations. Served in an individual white ceramic soup bowl set on top of a silver plated tripod, the soup looked like a Jackson Pollock painting colored gold from the asparagus, white from the crabmeat, and bright orange from the crab roe. Unfortunately I don’t see much of this soup on restaurant menus anymore. Perhaps it is too old-fashioned, and is out of favor among the ever-modern diners demanding “innovative” cooking.
It used to be that fresh white asparagus was not available in Singapore, and the soup I remember was made from the canned variety. Although the asparagus still retained much of its flavor the firm texture was very much lacking. I decided that fresh white asparagus could refresh this soup, hence my pursuit of this fresh ingredient.
Another important ingredient of course is fresh crabmeat along with its roe. The roe imparts a distinct sweet ocean scented flavor. The Chinese prize crab roe precisely because of this special quality, which in this case complements the earthy flavor of white asparagus. Chinatown fishmongers consistently stocks female crabs full of roe. You can determine the gender by looking at the shape of the abdomen, or “apron,” on the belly of the crab. The mature female crab displays a round shape “apron” and they are usually slightly more expensive than their male counterpart.
To extract the crabmeat first stab them in the belly, then steam the whole fresh crab. When the crabs are cooked and cooled pull the body away from the shell revealing the roe. Scrape the roe from the shell and set aside. Now crack the body and pick the meat out. Remember to pick the meat out of the legs as well. They are often full of succulent meat.
Fortunately I found white asparagus after only searching in two markets in Chelsea. Along with the mud crabs from Chinatown I made this wonderful soup for a small gathering with our neighbors. It was a hit and I thought I succeeded in bringing this soup up to date with fresh ingredients. Maybe with this improvement we can look at this classic soup in fresh light.
White Asparagus and Crabmeat Soup (蘆筍蟹肉羹)
- Preparation time: 45 minutes
- Slow cooking time: 20 minutes
- 1/2 lb. white asparagus
- 1/3 lb. crabmeat (from two 1 lb. live crabs)
- roe from the crabs
- 4 cups chicken stock
- Egg white from 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 3 tablespoons cornstarch in 1/3 cup water
- Thinly sliced Scallion for garnish
- Kill the crabs by stabbing them with a knife in the belly. Steam the crabs whole in a steamer. Cook for about 10 minutes then let cool. Pull the body of the crab away from the shell. Scrape the roe from the shell and break apart into very small pieces. Set the roe aside. Remove the gill from the body and crack the body of the crab. Pick the meat out using a lobster pick or toothpick. Set the crabmeat aside. Cut the white asparagus on the bias into pieces of about 1 inch long and set aside.
- In a medium sized (about 5 quarts) stockpot bring the chicken stock to a boil. Then add the white asparagus and cook for about 3 minutes. Add the crabmeat, crab roe, salt and white pepper. Bring to a boil and swirl in the egg white to form white ribbons. Finally thicken the soup with a slurry of cornstarch and water. Serve hot garnished with thinly sliced scallion.