I learned how to make tabang talangka as a very young girl. I would spend summers and All Saints Day holidays with my grandmother, Lola Charing (Rosario Valdes Gonzalez) in Bacolor, Pampanga. Sometimes it would be the season of talangka and seeing the whole ritual of this tiny crab being turned in crab paste (tabang talangka) was quite an adventure for me.
Talangka is found in fishponds. The pond owners called them ‘singaw’ (because they come out of nowhere). When the ponds would be emptied and cleaned in preparation of the stocking of fingerlings, one would find the talangka in abundance, appearing seemingly from out of nowhere. In fact, pond owners would even poison them because they were the pests of the pond.
Sacks of the talangka would be delivered to my grandmother’s kitchen then it was all hands on deck. First, the talangka would be poured into huge vats (batya), first to be rinsed and then the males would be segregated from the females. It was the tiny female crab that was needed for making this delicious paste. The males were then bound for the steamer and eaten; the prized ones were the females. It was the females with their delicious orangey fat that was needed to make the tabang talangka. In fact, one knew if the bottled paste was pure or had a mixture of male crabs by the color of the fat: if it was pale orange, then male crabs were added to it, lowering the quality of the crab paste. The more orange-y it was, the higher the paste’s quality. Nowadays, most commercial tabang talangka is a mixture of female and male talangka. Producers find it a waste to use only the female crabs, as adding male crabs into the mix add body to the paste. Also, a purely female tabang talangka becomes prohibitively expensive.
Aside from segregating the males from the females, all the dead crabs would also be discarded. The major rule was: NO DEAD CRABS in the lot. This rule is rigidly observed: dead crabs had a rotten smell and would spoil the batch being cooked. Even when the crabs are ready to be squeezed, one had to smell each and every tiny crustacean just in case one dead crab escaped someone’s eye (and nose).
The next step in the talangka preparation is more of an artistic approach. There is no measurement. One just knew, by looking at the tiny crabs, how much salt one had to put in to pickle the crabs. The crabs would now be divided into manageable amounts and put in huge casseroles that were covered, then vigorously shaken with both hands. I could see the crabs scrambling all over each other; no wonder the phrase ‘crab mentality’; each crab tries to go over the next crab, pulling the other crab down, so it could go on top of it. Then my lola (grandmother) would come around with a pail of sea salt flakes and dish out a handful of salt to start the pickling process of the talangka. She would start by sprinkling a handful of salt all over the crabs; the cook would now shake the closed casserole. Then my lola would have the cover removed and take a look at how much more salt she needed to put. Her rule was, for as long as you don’t see salt flakes on the crabs, you must keep adding; a little at a time; shake; then look; add salt; shake; till you see salt flakes on the crabs. It was done over a period of an hour.
Once the salt flakes can be seen, the crabs must now pickle in the salt for about 4 to 6 hours, depending on how pickled the crabs had become. The test to see if the crabs had been pickled enough and ready to be squeezed out was, when there was little effort to squeeze the crab meat out of the tiny body. Only then the crablets were ready for squeezing, as they were now truly pickled!
Now ready, get set, squeeze! The traditional way to squeeze the crabs was to remove the shell, place the crab between your two thumbs and squeeze the bejesus out of them. Yes! It is definitely a recipe for sore thumbs. Can you imagine squeezing a hundred, a thousand of the tiny crabs to just get that one half teaspoon of fat and flesh from that one inch crab. It takes hours! But it’s fun! The other technique in making life easier with this squeezing is to get a clean soda bottle and press each crab (top shell removed) onto the bottle opening. The thumbs technique is more efficient since you can really squeeze all the appropriate fat/meat out of the crab and not include the crabs’ air sacs; these get included when you use the bottle technique, and that lowers the quality of the paste.
But before one can squeeze the fat/meat out of the crab, one must also take out the black “thread” that is on top of the fat; that is part of the intestinal tract and it is unpleasant when it gets into the paste, as it’s sandy and grainy when eaten.
When one has gotten enough crab top shells, one begins the ‘no short cut’ part, in getting more fat out of the top shell. One now takes out the ‘teeth, stomach’ part of the crab, that’s in the front center of the crab shell, by totally removing it with a quick pinch outward. Then, using a blunt table knife, scoop out the fat from the top shell by sliding the knife from side to side to remove it from the top shell and then including this fat together with the squeezed fat/meat.
To remove the fishy taste of the crab/meat paste; some use vinegar but I use calamansi (local lemons or calamundin). Calamasi juice is then poured into the crab/meat paste; use just enough juice to remove the fishy taste.
Now to cook precious paste. In a non-corrosive cooking pot, over a low flame, pour in the oil and sauté the garlic till a light golden brown. Then pour in the crab/meat paste and slowly stir continuously. I like to use some, about 10% of male crab meat, and add this to the paste to give it some body. Pure female fat is very soft and easily becomes pasty; the addition of male crab meat adds some texture to the mix. At this stage, lola puts her tasting spoon to use and see if the mix needs more adjustment. Salt is the very last thing lola would put since the crabs were already pickled with salt.
The paste is ready when the concoction is a very bright red orange. It must be placed in sterilized jars to prevent spoilage and when it’s cool, melted wax is poured on the top to seal the paste from air; finally, it is then refrigerated.
And that is the art of making tabang talangka!
- 200 pieces talangka – female
- 20 pieces talangka – male
- The total fat/meat must come to one cup
- How to tell male from female – when one looks on the underside of the crab, one sees a flap under the crab. The females’ flap is heart shaped and the male is sword shaped. And the androgynous is in between the two; a thin heart.
- ¼ cup cooking oil
- 2 tablespoons crushed garlic
- 1 tablespoon calamansi juice
- 1 tablespoon Mirin
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- In a small glass bowl, mix the fat/meat of the talangka with the calamansi juice and Mirin.
- Set aside.
- In a non-reactive cooking saucepan (use a Teflon coated or ceramic pan or glass cooking pan), warm pan over low flame for 1 minute and pour in oil.
- Warm for 1 minute and begin to sauté the garlic till the garlic is a light golden tan.
- Throughout the whole cooking process, keep the fire to low.
- When the garlic is a light golden tan, pour in the crab/meat mixture.
- Continuous stir the mixture slowly; you don’t want it to be pasty; you want some texture.
- Season with pepper and continue to simmer till the cooking oil starts to color into a bright red orange.
- Taste the mixture and adjust. You can add more calamansi juice, Mirin, or black pepper and salt if needed.
- This whole procedure takes about 20 to 30 minutes.
- When done, cool the mixture and place is a sterile container and refrigerate or you can freeze.
- Eat with steaming hot rice or with crackers or use as a sauce.