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Mar 29, 2011
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Wine With . . . Asian Style Crab Cakes

by Paul Lukacs and Marguerite Thomas

The Chesapeake blue crab, which is native along the coastal Atlantic region from Nova Scotia to Argentina, is so revered where we live that it is officially the Maryland State Crustacean.  There is scarcely a restaurant here in Baltimore that doesn’t offer crab in one form or another on its menu.  Our city loves steamed hard-shell crabs, claims two kinds of crab soup as its own (tomato and cream), and goes crazy for soft-shelled crabs when they’re available in the summer.  But Baltimore’s signature dish is surely crab cakes.  Even our state’s senior US senator, Barbara Mukulski, has a recipe for crab cakes on her website.

When we make crab cakes at home, we generally prefer the simplest, most traditional approach (see Crab Cakes recipe in the Sept. 27, 2005 Wine With Archives).  Like certain other kinds of shellfish (scallops, for example), fresh crabmeat is both delicate and rich.  Since its succulent delicacy can be undermined by competing and aggressive flavors (in the same way that extremely assertive wines can overpower it), we tend not to include bell pepper or other strong-tasting ingredients when we prepare crab cakes.  But we do make an exception when it comes to Asian ingredients such as soy sauce, chili paste, sesame oil, or nam pla (fish sauce).   Although these all have fairly forceful flavors, they nonetheless mysteriously enhance, rather than overwhelm, crab’s inherent delicacy.  Is it the umami in them, perhaps?  In any event, we think this Asian inspired recipe is a terrific variation on the classic crab cake theme.

Loyal to our state crustacean, we use blue crab, but Dungeness or any other fresh crabmeat will be fine too.  Keep the rest of the menu simple (we like to accompany the crab cakes with a side dish of broccoli sautéed with a little garlic and sesame oil).  The crab cakes may be served with an Asian dipping sauce based on soy or tamari sauce and scallions.  Or you could make it an entirely multi-cultural dish and serve it with mayonnaise-based aioli or tartar sauce.

Crab cakes with a minimum of mayonnaise and breadcrumb “filler” to bind them together have a loose texture and sometimes tend to fall apart, but the flavor and texture tradeoffs are worth it.  In this recipe we’ve substituted egg whites for mayonnaise (a very non-Asian product) to hold the cakes together. 

Asian Style Crab Cakes

(Makes 4 crab cakes.)

1 pound fresh lump crab meat

¼ cup minced scallions

¼ cup minced cilantro

1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh ginger

1 teaspoon chili oil or chili paste (1/4 teaspoon, or more, cayenne)

2 egg whites

3 tablespoons breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs

About two tablespoons peanut or other mild flavored oil, as needed

Lime wedges

Pick through the crab to make sure it is free of cartilage.  In a bowl, combine the scallions, cilantro, sesame oil, soy sauce, ginger, and chili paste.  Whisk the egg whites until they are just beginning to get frothy, then add them to the mix.  Fold in the cracker crumbs and the crab and combine all the ingredients thoroughly.

Refrigerate the mixture for 30 minutes to 3 hours.  When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375°.  Form the crab mixture into four plump, cookie-shaped cakes.   Brush one side of each cake with oil, then place it oil side down on a baking sheet.  Brush the other side with oil.   Bake about 4-5 minutes.  Turn carefully and bake on the other side 4-5 minutes, or until the cakes develop a nice golden-brown flavor.  If they start to fall apart as you’re dishing them up, use the edge of a spatula to push the runaway pieces back into shape. 

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We tried twelve wines with these crab cakes, all white except for one rosé (which turned out to be too heavy).  The wines that performed best all shared a common profile, with clean, fresh fruit flavors and little or no wood influence.  Some showed some overt sweetness, others were quite dry, but all emphasized the taste of fruit.  Unlike more traditional Maryland crab cakes, which pair well with full-bodied, oak-aged wines, the ginger, soy, cilantro, and sesame made these almost demand lighter, fresher flavors.



Approx. Price



Carmel Road, Monterey (California) Pinot Gris 2009





Tasting of crisp apples and sweet pears, this medium-weight wine had a hint of sweetness that accented the sweet taste of the crab, while not interfering with the Asian elements that make these crab cakes taste so distinctive.



Kendall-Jackson, California Chardonnay “Avant” 2009





We tried three different Chardonnays, and this was by far our favorite due to its bright, clean citrus and golden delicious apple flavors.



Matanzas Creek Winery, Sonoma County (California) Sauvignon Blanc 2009




A South African Sauvignon Blanc seemed too green and racy for this dish, but this Californian tasted just right.  It had herbal hints, but they were just that--hints rather than shouts.  And its primary citrus flavors helped make the crab cakes shine.



Villa Wolf, Pfalz (Germany) Gewürztraminer 2009 (Imported by Loosen Bros USA)





The sweetest wine we tasted, this Gewürztraminer showed impressive acidity (unlike many renditions of the varietal), so stayed in balance and tasted refreshing rather than heavy or cloying.



Viña Costeira, Ribeiro (Spain) 2009

(Imported by Spain Wine Collection)




Made with the Spanish grape variety, Treixadura (also known as Trajadura when grown for Vinho Verde in Portugal), this wine tasted very lemony, and so served much the same function as a squeeze of citrus did on the crab cakes.