Historic Recipe: Crab Soup (1947)

Source: Chinese Cookery; A Hundred Practical Recipes by M.P. Lee (first published 1943, this edition 1947)

This is a very strange little tome that I found in a charity shop in London last year – it’s a bizarre combination of Chinese cookery that’s been adapted for the British market and Chinese cookery that’s been adapted with rationing in mind.

Chinese food came to Britain in the mid to late nineteenth century with Chinese sailors. It was these who opened the first Chinese restaurants around docklands areas, predominantly catering to their own Chinese seafaring community. There are a couple of publications containing Chinese recipes that survive from the 1890s onwards but it wasn’t until 1908 that Chinese cooking started to gain wider popularity. In the summer of that year, Chung Koon, a chef who cut his teeth cooking on the Red Funnel Line, opened Maxim’s in Soho. The food was Catonese and the most ordered dish on the menu was pork in a sweet and sour sauce.

In the wake of this exposure a handful more recipe books were published including: Chinese Cookery in the Home Kitchen: Being Recipes for the Preparation of the Most Popular Chinese dishes at Home by Jessie Louise Nolton (1911) and The Chinese Cook Book: Covering the Entire Field of Chinese Cookery in the Chinese Order of Serving, From Nuts to Soup by M Sing Au (1936). The latter of these strikes me as quite ambitious and I’m tempted to try and track down a copy.

After the Second World War further restaurants opened, many by staff members of the Chinese Embassy who were stranded by the British governmental recognition of Mao Tse-tung’s Communist regime. In 1958 Chung Koon’s son, John opened the Lotus House in Queensway, Bayswater. It was so popular that punters who couldn’t get a seat in the restaurant asked for food to take away, making it the first take away in the country. In the same year, Butlin’s introduced chop suey (not a real Chinese dish, but one that was created for the American and British markets) and chips to their holiday camps.

But back to Lee’s 1940s contribution to the field; I can find very little about this book other than a couple of reviews, here’s what The Spectator (17 June 1943) had to say:

Mr. Lee’s Chinese Cookery is of the greatest use in these lean times. His recipes have been deliberately simplified, so as in the main to dispense with most of those Chinese condiments, normally indispensable, which have lately, alas! disappeared even from Soho; and in almost any well-conducted English kitchen. His instructions can be followed with an admirable relief from monotony and an apparent extension of rations. To cite my own experience: recently our meat ration, which that week happened to be pork, was cooked according to his “Sweet and Sour Pork” recipe (page 37)—one of the classic dishes of China. Not only did it last for two ample meals, but to the second of them there came three hungry guests. (Naturally the pork was supported by plenty of rice and several dishes of vegetables) but the cooking of vegetables in the Chinese style is a remarkably simple and effortless affair. No tedious boiling away of essential virtues, but the intelligent wielding of a knife, a frying pan and a little hot fat. This is a cookery book which I can warmly recommend to all who agree that life holds more than Yorkshire pudding and “chou a l’eau.”

I do wonder if the reviewer had read the same book as me, as so many of the recipes seem completely unappealing, but rationing makes you eat funny things. I was determined to cook something from it, however, and I finally alighted on this one for crab soup which actually sounded quite alright.

1 large crab (weighing about 2lb.)
1 oz. lard
1 tablespoon of cooking sherry
¼ lb. spring onions
A few slices of ginger or ginger powder
2 cloves of garlic
1 dessertspoonful of cornflour
1 tomato
1 egg

Crab makes a delicious thick soup which is very easy to prepare. Remove the flesh from the shell and from the claws, put in a saucepan with 1 pint of water, 1 oz. lard, butter or any other vegetable oil, 1 teaspoonful of cooking sherry, a few slices of ginger (or ginger powder) or crushed garlic, ¼ lb. chopped spring onions and 1 tomato, thicken with 1 dessertspoonful of cornflour and simmer for 20 minutes. Beat 1 egg in a soup tureen, pour in the crab and stir gently. The beaten egg will be cooked by the boiling soup, and the crab will retain its tenderness.

I have never actually dealt with a whole cooked crab before, so the first part of this recipe was an adventure in itself. It turns out with the help of YouTube, it’s not that hard just messy, time consuming and prone to make your new lodger look confused when you gleefully start beating bits of it with a rolling pin.

The tablespoonful/teaspoonful debacle regarding the cooking sherry is not a typo on my part, rather on the books, I obviously plumped for the larger measure and I picked butter as my fat of choice. I also substituted arrowroot for the cornflour as corn makes me sick and I’m not willing to suffer for my art, even for this blog. The recipe was clear and easy to follow until I reached the soup tureen. Contrary to popular belief I do not, in fact, own a soup tureen so I settled for a large bowl, this worked equally as well. The outcome was surprisingly good – thick, but not too thick, slightly spicy but not so much that it overwhelmed the crab; it felt like a comfort food that wasn’t actually bad for you.

Suggested alterations: Add another egg, they’re not rationed now.

Final verdict: A protein-rich, warming broth which is actually pretty tasty


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