We loved Harley Spiller’s post Sea Salty: The Man and the Crab on AAWW’s online magazine The Margins, about his friend and former Marine mess cook John Gun Pin. In the post, he remembers both Pin’s life and the last dish he prepared: ha cha (cured crab). We and asked to excerpt it on our blog. You can read Harley’s full post here. The Margins is the flagship editorial platform of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a bold new online magazine dedicated to inventing the Asian American creative culture of tomorrow.
Our no-fuss hero was born on the island of Donghai in mainland China’s Zhoushan Archipelago. He cut his eye teeth on Ningbo-style eats, an important facet of zhejiang, or Shanghai food, one of the eight cuisines of the vast Chinese cookhouse. Ningbo cooking allows natural flavor to predominate and is characteristically salty and fragrant. Locals prize soft textured seafood dishes like braised eel or fried yellow croaker, and preserved snacks that help stretch the abundant white rice, like ni law, salted molting snails with shells as small and translucent as pinky nails.
John’s Jackson Heights home was for years the closest I got to China. Fish draped with newspaper dried on lines under the eaves; the kitchen was re-purposed as cousin Coco’s acupuncture studio; and televised Chinese opera monopolized a visitor’s remaining senses. The basement, which opened onto a vegetable garden with fruit trees and a patio peppered with potted alliums, had been turned into an open kitchen. Aluminum-foil-wrapped appliances flanked a simple eating area, and jars of every description sat with their contents steeping, pickling, and curing in corners and on ledges selected for their particular qualities of temperature, light, and air. Eco-minded before their time, nothing in the Pins’ jam-packed fridge seemed to be in its original bottle.
John died in January 1997. His son Michael and I visited Rose Pin, his widow, a month or so later. Her cooking was subtler and more precisely executed than her husband’s, but the first thing she offered was the very last dish John had made—a bottle of ha cha—salt-preserved crab. Rose served John’s amuse-gueule but declined to partake. “Too salty,” she said.
John made two kinds of ha cha, always controlling the bottled admixtures for ullage. Both used the same ingredients, but one featured crab bodies, minced along with their shells. The other contained only claws, cracked but intact. Ha cha is best eaten by straining the chitinous bits through the teeth like a baleen whale filtering krill. Traditionally smeared over steamed white rice, the roseate Ningbospecialtyhas a squishy texture and, like John, a salty spiciness tempered with oceanic sweetness.
Like much traditional Ningbo cuisine, John was simple but ingenious, with a powerfully unpretentious character. Today there are 7.5 million Ningbo natives, yet Shanghai and its Shaoxing-wine soused “drunken crabs” steal the limelight. There are few mentions of ha cha on the Internet and I have never heard of it being served in a restaurant. Other cured brachyura include the Korean chili-based yangnyeom gejang and soy-doused ganjang gejang, preparations so popular that the city of Gwangju boasts a “Street of Seasoned Raw Crab & Boiled Rice.” It seems that the only edible raw crab is the leg meat of zuwaigani (Hokkaido snow crab), which is turned into glistening sashimi. Eating more ordinary crab raw can cause serious infections from parasites like the ugly-sounding and acting lung fluke. Ha cha, ceviche, and other cured foods (think lox, ham) might appear raw to the uninitiated, but they are ready to eat.