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Why this recipe works:
Toasting whole spices and aromatics in oil over low heat helps draw out fat-soluble flavor compounds and triggers complex reactions that improves their aroma.
We cook the spiced tomato mixture until the fat breaks out into droplets on the surface. This is an indication that the moisture content has reduced sufficiently to intensify flavors.
3 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1 medium onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup), divided
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 whole small dried red chili, such as Thai bird or chile de árbol
5 whole black peppercorns
2 whole cloves
1 inch piece of ginger, minced (about 1 tablespoon)
3 medium cloves garlic , minced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 cup tomato puree
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
2 medium Dungeness or Jonah crabs, cleaned and cut into half
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
Cooked rice or flatbread for serving
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat until shimmering. Add 1 tablespoon chopped onion, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, dried chili, peppercorns, cloves, ginger, and garlic. Cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add fennel seeds. Stir to mix through. Immediately transfer to the bowl of a blender or mortar and pestle and blend/pound until a fine paste is formed, scraping down sides as necessary.
Wipe out saucepan with a paper towel and add remaining oil. Heat over medium heat until shimmering. Add the remaining onion. Cook, stirring, unti lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Add the tomato puree, bring to a simmer, and simmer for 5 minutes. Add turmeric powder and the ground spice paste. Stir well to combine and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the oil separates and starts surfacing. Add a few drops of water if the paste tends to stick or get too dry.
Add the crab and salt. Spoon some of the sauce over the crab to coat. Cover and cook for 5 minute. Remove lid, stir, and continue to cook for 10 minutes, spooning the sauce over the crabs occasionally. Sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve immediately with rice or bread.
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