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Erwan learned how to catch crustaceans while growing up, but in Dumaguete, he discovers their unique regional approach to catching mud crabs.
- Hey guys, I'm Erwan Heusasaff. let me take you around the Philippines as we discover the people and the food that make this country a special place. Welcome to the Philippines, a mysterious gem composed of over 7,500 islands. I'm Erwan Heusasaff, a Filipino and French cook and traveler. I'm always on the move and after unique flavors, interesting people and immersive experiences, but sometimes when you look too far away, you miss out on what's right in front of you. I'm on a journey to uncover the origins of this amazing country and the food I love. We find ourselves in the beautiful hustle and bustle of Dumaguete City boardwalk. Dumaguete City is the capital and principle seaport of Negros Oriental, a providence which occupies the southeastern portion of the Negros Island in the Visayas. The city is very popular because it serves as the perfect jump off point to other touristic areas in Negros Oriental. It's also a gateway to some of the best dives sights in the country. This area is great for diving and fishing, but we're not here for the touristy stuff. Let me dry off, we're gonna go catch some mud crabs. These terrestrial crabs are locally called cajun and are prized for their unique flavor. They can be found in different parts of the country and are celebrated here locally, during the harvest season at a festival called . I've caught crabs in the sea before where they usually hide under rocks which corner them. So to catch them on firm ground where they have nothing but space to run, was definitely more interesting. We went to a small coconut farm in Sibulan, here I wanted to learn how to catch these crabs that love to live deep in coconut tree soil and go about running around at night. And of course, how they prepare them locally. If you're someone like me who grew up by the beach, you're used to seeing these tiny little holes in the sands. Walking around this little coconut farm, you see that as well. Holes in the ground, sometimes one meter to two meters deep. So that means there's something to be found. They're telling me that mud crabs here are really bountiful and they have a very particular way of catching and cooking it. To catch these crabs you have to find them first, so how do you know if there's a crab in a hole? My friend Ebrahim showed me to look for it's manure. These little droppings are signs that the whole is fresh and that something may be living inside. So when these crabs are burrowing under, they're basically pushing all this mud up, so the colder and the wetter it is, does that mean? It's fresh, okay. So they make these holes, they stay there during the day and then at night is when they come out. So you use these traps? So important that the mouth of the hole is smaller than the mouth of the trap?
- Yeah, yeah. Because or else the crabs can go around it.
- Yeah, yeah.
- Okay. All right, so you put this in. So there's a release system, right? Okay. So we'll put the mud around it just to make it firm. So then you would put this up, right?
- [Ebrahim] Yeah.
- And then this basically gets stuck on the mouth here and then this is basically the release system, right? And then if something hits here, then it closes and then your crab is stuck there. So when this is kind of off, you know there's a crab inside. All right, let's find a trap with something in it then. After Abraham showed me how the trap works in theory, we went over to the field to see if he had caught anything from last night.
- Ebrahim, so why is there a leaf on this one? Does that happen a lot? People will see it and just take the crab?
- Yeah, yeah, yeah.
- Really? So this is just to hide it from people, from human beings. Okay, so this one's been released so there should be a crab inside, right? So you just take it out?
- Okay. So there's a crab here. Okay, so how do we get it out here? Okay. What happens if he like runs away? So you grab him. Hold these two? Okay, these are pretty strong aye?
- [Ebrahim] Yeah.
- What's your favorite way of eating this? Or what's the most traditional way? Coconut milk?
- Okay, let's try that out. Abraham collected the rest of the crabs and unloaded them into a bucket. Celia is known for making the best crabs in the area. She told me to grab one which sounded easy, but ended up being quite a challenge. I can hold it just from the bottom right? Or you need to hold the spikes?
- [Woman] You can hold the arms.
- At the back, yeah just the back? Yeah, like we do in Europe. To make sure that the crab doesn't hurt me, Ebrahim used an old trick. Apparently he put a little piece of bamboo into the holes in the claws, it locks them. There's a lock system. Okay. It's the male crab. Usually do you prefer male or female? Male's better? More meat? Okay. So how do you do this? What's the easiest way? She was so sweet but let me tell you, she's pretty bad ass.
- The force.
- Wow. First she opens up the crab. You keep the head because the head fat is gonna be used for the sauce later on. The shells will also come in handy. This reminds me when my dad also fishes for crabs a lot. So I did this when I was a kid. So when you'd make this for a lot of people, how many crabs do you prepare usually? 80 pieces? And how long does it take you to do it? All day? All day. That's love right there. That's real soul cooking. Next step, to clean out the body. The crab fat from the head is added to the coconut meat. All right, so we have two clean crabs, we have coconut meat with some crab fat in there. Where do you start usually? So a little bit of salt? Only two pieces for now. That's garlic. Some tomatoes. Just for two portions. One crab for you, one crab for me. And this is ginger and garlic? How much? Just mix everything together. So the crab fat and the coconut will be very creamy right when it's cooked, and that's kinda what we wanna do. Now comes the interesting part, we mix the crab fat with the coconut meat to imbibe it with flavor. Since these crabs carry most of their meat in their claws, the flavored coconut will act as the filling for the head cavity, making the cooked crab look and taste plump. Push hard. So that it sticks, okay. For this dish, we needed banana leaves to cook the crab. They are very versatile and used all over. But before being used, they are sanitized by passing each piece through a live flame. Next we put the rest of the crab-coconut mixture into a banana leaf and tie it with a string of leaf. Close this first, four corners. And then wrap it. While we were working with stuffing the crabs and wrapping them, Ebrahim got the fire started. Then we put the coconut milk into the pot. So one more layer of banana leaf. Why do you put one more? Ah, so it steams it. So the coconut cream doesn't cover the crab? It just gives it the flavor, okay. And then one more? This here? So this will take 30 minutes usually to cook? Okay. Now for the best part, eating the crab. Celia surprised me with a batch that had already cooled down and that were ready to eat. All right, so these were cooked before already. And then how about what we put a while ago in here? Do you eat that also? I'm gonna try this one. Sorry, I'm gonna use my hands. You almost feel like the coconut is almost like crab meat.
- Because it took all that flavor. Break it. It's tasty, it's full. You want one? No? She's like no, I've had enough. These crabs were truly delicious and I really enjoyed learning the special way of preparing them. After saying my goodbyes, I was off to meet up with my friend and fellow restaurateur, Jay, who never misses the chance to crack a joke. He grew up around this area, and has a couple of spots he wants to take me to give us a break from this heat. Knowing Jay, he'll want to cook up something delicious too. Coming from Minila, the capital of the Philippines, it's always a treat to start isolated in nature. First he took me to Lake Balinsasayao and it's twin lake, the equally breathtaking Lake Danao. Jay probably paddle boards every day. Me, not as much. After a couple of wobbles, I caught up with him. He showed me that long alternating strokes are best. The lakes are two small but deep crater fresh water lakes, rising 1,000 feet above sea level. They are located in a protected natural park which is home to an expansive ecosystem and great biodiversity. After paddle boarding, Jay took us on a short hike to nearby Olayan Falls, very pretty and pretty damn cold. We really worked up an appetite and I wanted to learn more about the local way of cooking. So Jay invited me over to his restaurant to show me how to make his favorite dish. A lot of Filipino dishes were born out of necessity. And in this case, the native chickens don't actually have lots of meat but carry a ton of flavor. It uses other ingredients to create a saucy and filling meal, to make up for the lack of protein. All right, so we're with Jay here in his restaurant in Dumaguete, and the paddle boarding makes you hungry.
- You're gonna show me how to make two dishes. What are we starting with?
- First we're gonna start with Halang Halang.
- Do you know why it's called Halang Halang?
- Halang Halang is spicy, spicy. First you have to saute the garlic.
- Skin on?
- Skin on, I love. I mean, I really don't know. The aroma is so much different than, you know?
- [Erwan] So you're not skinning it, you're not chopping it?
- Yeah, just putting that in and then when it's a little bit brown, you can start putting your ginger. After that, we're ready to put our--
- Native chicken.
- Native chicken.
- So once your native chicken is in there, what's the next step?
- Next is, I love to put vinegar in it.
- Oh wow, so that's very different.
- Yeah, that's very different. There's three reasons why I'm putting vinegar. First is the taste. Second is to get rid of the for the meat. And then third one is to help tenderize the meat since it's an acid.
- So it will help, exactly.
- Break down the muscles.
- But this is not just any type of vinegar.
- No, I made that personally. That's my own version of Pinakurat.
- It taste very good, it's a special vinegar. So Pinakurat is basically a spicy vinegar that you can find in most places in the Philippines. And most people won't even give you their recipes for their Pinakurat, it's that special.
- After that we put water in it.
- That's almost like a French technique, put some wine in or some vinegar, break down that muscle, get all the flavor from the pan.
- There you go!
- See, I know where you're getting it. I know where you're getting it from, man.
- There you go. And of course, salt.
- Some salt.
- And some pepper.
- You just have to wait until it's tender.
- [Jay] While waiting for that, maybe we can proceed to our fern.
- Yeah, I see the fern salad.
- The next is one of the local favorite as well. We call it a Pako salad. It's a fern salad.
- It's like a baby fern. These are raw, right?
- These are still raw? Okay, great.
- Yeah, very simple. You just have to blanch it with of course, hot water. Very quick.
- So just to shock it?
- Yeah, shock it.
- Get some nice color on it. So ferns naturally have kind of like, this slimy taste to them.
- I love the taste.
- When you blanch them, that goes down a little bit, but it's still there which I think is really important. So it's like when you're eating like algae or something, you have that sliminess in your mouth which is great.
- This is it.
- This is like the perfect low cost food. People have that in their backyards most of the time here.
- Exactly, yeah.
- And your preparation is again, using the same kind of basic ingredients.
- Of course the vinegar that we have earlier, we also put that here in the salad. And we're basically gonna mix everything with ginger. We put some onion on it, tomato, and salt. Pepper. Just give it a good stir just to dissolve all the salt that you put inside so that the flavor will be like very nice after doing that. You just have to tap it.
- That's beautiful. That's how Filipino food should be, man. Just simple ingredients, simple vegetables, and lots of vinegar and garlic, always.
- [Jay] It's time to put the lemongrass.
- So these are just lemongrass bundles.
- Lemongrass bundles, yeah. After all of that, put the chili now.
- Is that really spicy chili or?
- Not too spicy. We call that the Siling Espada. After we--
- Red bell peppers?
- Red bell peppers.
- Awesome. Even start another wok it would look amazing, right? The colors are there.
- [Jay] Very good, yeah.
- Spring onions.
- Bash all those spring onions. You don't need a knife.
- [Erwan] Yeah, you don't need to cut it.
- Then of course, the last one--
- Coconut milk. That looks delicious, man.
- In cooking coconut milk, you really don't need to overcook the coconut milk.
- Definitely, yeah.
- So a little boil, you can shut it off and seal it down. You just have to, you know.
- So contrary to popular belief, these aren't actually spicy, they just have a nice peppery flavor to them.
- This is my very colorful Halang Halang here in Dumaguete City.
- After a long night, this is what you want to wake up to.
- Exactly. After a long surf.
- That too yeah, sure.
- Couple cups of rice and you're set. Try that again. So this would be done already?
- Done, man.
- Nice. Delicious. The best dishes for me are those with stories to tell, those that were born from the produce surrounding them and the creative people who were around to put things together. The providence of Negros Oriental is known for its gentle people. I never really truly understood this until now. I know where you're getting it. I know where you're getting it from, man. The people living here are soft spoken, understanding, hospitable, and love to celebrate life through music, food and dance. You could say that about every Filipino but here they just move at a very relaxing pace that I think I could get used to. The abundance of good food around these parts will always make me come back and happily so now that I have new found friends to come and visit.
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