Crab Jjigae (게찌개)

The summer after I completed fourth grade, my family went on a vacation to Virginia Beach. We went to Busch Gardens, Colonial Williamsburg, and did a bit of swimming in the ocean but the most memorable part of that trip was the day we spent crabbing.

We went to the local fishing supply place to rent some crab traps - a.k.a. wire cages with a door on one side and a long rope tied to the top - and then we went to the grocery store to buy chicken thighs. My dad tied the chicken to the inside of the cages and then we dropped them into the water and waited. A few minutes later, we pulled up the traps and there were five or six blue crabs in each one! It was so much fun. If my memory serves me correctly, I'm pretty sure we went home with two huge coolers full of those ugly (yet delicious) suckers. Most of them ended up in the freezer and we probably ate them slowly over the course of a year.

My favorite dish that my mama made with our catch was a crab jjigae (게찌개, "gae-jjee-gae"). And as a kid, I loved meticulously digging through the shell just to get a tiny morsel of meat. I thought it was a lot of fun and the effort was 100% worth the reward. These days though, it doesn't seem worth it to me; it's just too messy and not satisfying enough to crack a shell and reveal a tiny, blueberry-sized morsel of meat. But, when I saw dungeness crab in the seafood section (during my most recent trip to the Korean grocery), my immediate reaction was to throw it in my cart with the intention of making crab jjigae where the effort would be worth the reward once again.
Ingredients [serves 4 to 6]:
1 dungeness crab (or 2 to 3 blue crabs)
½ lb fish fillets (I used swai, which is a type of catfish, I think; it's tender and flaky - you could use tilapia, cod, red snapper, choose something mild)
2 tablespoons hot pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 tablespoon oil (preferably something mild like canola or vegetable, NOT olive oil)
3 cups water
½ tablespoon hot pepper paste (gochujang)
½ tablespoon bean paste (dwenjang)
½ cup chopped cabbage kimchi
½ onion, sliced
3 cloves garlic, smashed
hot peppers (to taste)
1 package udon noodles
½ cup sliced rice cakes (dduk)
¼ lb firm tofu
2 cups mung bean sprouts (kong namul)
1 cup spinach
1 bunch enoki mushrooms
Slice the onions, peel the garlic, slice up the tofu, chop the kimchi, soak the udon, chop the crab in half, rinse the mung bean sprouts, and find a pot that's wide and shallow. Crab (and lobster) actually creep me out pretty badly these days. I get scared because they're essentially giant bugs, but they're delicious bugs, so I try and power through. By the way, if you don't know, dungeness crabs are humongous and have a ton of meat in them (about 1/4 of their weight is meat) so when you can find them, buy them (they're seasonal in winter).

I like to cut the crab in half (called "backing) so that I can clean out some of the icky bits and also because it cooks a bit faster. My crab was not alive when I did this. I know that some people have humanity issues with boiling crab and lobster alive (and with eating animals in general). If you are one of these people, you do not need to read this post or any of my other meaty entries.
To make the jjigae, start by adding oil to the pan and heating over a low flame. Pour in the hot pepper flakes and mix them into the oil until the oil is red and the pepper flakes are sizzling. Pour in the water and then mix in the hot pepper paste, bean paste, and the kimchi. Also toss in the garlic, onions, and hot peppers. Let the soup come to a boil and then add in the crab.
Let the crab cook halfway (5 to 8 minutes) before adding in the rest of the ingredients. OR, if you're like me and the pot just isn't big enough for the humongous dungeness crabs, cook the crab fully (10 to 15 minutes) and then remove before following the rest of the steps below.
This actually worked out for my family because by the time the jjigae was done, the crab had cooled down enough for us to be able to manhandle the pieces and scoop out all of the delicious meat.
To finish the jjigae, add in the fish fillets, udon noodles, rice cakes, tofu, and bean sprouts. Cook for maybe 10 minutes until the fish is cooked through, the noodles are tender, and the sprouts are wilted.
Top with spinach and the enoki and serve. The residual heat will be enough to wilt the spinach and mushrooms after the pot is placed on the dinner table; this just makes for a prettier presentation.
Eat with rice and kimchi and any other banchan (side dishes) you like. Ugh, this totally hits the spot, especially on a frigid winter evening.
Here's the recipe page: