Fermented seafood products are nothing new, the march of the Romans across large swathes of the globe wasn't done on an empty stomach and near everything they ate was finished with garum, a sauce made from the fermented guts of various fish. Still today they make their way down many an in-the-dark gullet via Worcestershire Sauce. In less covert form I imagine many have seasoned a tom yum with fish sauce or used the dark, salty, odious shrimp paste when making a Thai curry paste.
It was these routes that opened my eyes to the SE Asian love of such things but it's not until you get here, eat at a few local establishments and visit a few markets, that you realise just how much they love them. A market stall doesn't just sell shrimp paste, it sells 10 different kinds, all varying in shade. Fish sauce in Vietnam comes in many grades and made from different fish. Prahok in Cambodia, a fermented freshwater fish, brings a tear to the eye with its smell yet it makes it into the frying pan and onto the table from dusk through dawn. One of the most interesting fermented products I've seen is the crab though. I'd seen them in markets across the region, seen a youtube recipe for papaya salad that used them (which I admit wasn't too appealing) but up until recently I'd never had the guts to give them a proper test.
In the Lumpini night bazaar in Bangkok recently though I noticed a jar on a stall and decided to move on from voyeur, making the move with a papaya salad, mirroring my youtube learnings. To prepare the salad she simply made the dressing as normal with her pestle and mortar and once the palm sugar, lime juice, chillies and fish sauce were combined she broke a couple of crabs in her hands and added them too. They took a few crushing blows before the papaya, carrot and tomato joined them for a stir and it was served.You may be wondering how raw, fermented crab tastes? If you were then the answer was surprisingly good, and surprisingly crab like. I guess I was expecting something more intense, something more removed from the original through the fermentation process, and whilst it definitely was a lot stronger in flavour there was no mistaking that sweet crab taste underneath. As it was still reasonably whole I had to place a leg or two in my mouth and bite down, crushing the shell. This caused the salty, sweet and rather raw crab meat to squirt out the end where I really enjoyed it. The spent shells were then spat out, whether you're meant to swallow or not I don't know. The body wasn't such a pleasant taste, the darker meat seeming to taste pretty rough after a good salting and fermentation. The legs were an all round nice eat though and certainly far superior to the aforementioned prahok in Cambodia.