When I was very young, my parents would take us to Trader Vic’s restaurant in NYC. We had to get nicely dressed for this occasion, which only happened once a year. We would order a giant pupu platter for the center of the table. This platter was a variety of American Chinese and Polynesian style appetizers that rotated on a lazy Susan.
I totally loved the crispy egg rolls and those little cheesy fried wontons known as crab Rangoon. To be sure, this is a very odd little dumpling because it combines cheese with shellfish. Cream cheese and crab, to be precise. But it works and they are delicious, especially when dipped in a sweet and tangy orange duck sauce. Don’t ask me why it is called duck sauce.
A Little Crab Rangoon History
Chinese immigrants were first allowed to work (or brought to work) in the United States mainly laying railroad tracks from coast to coast. While these workers were accustomed to eating a very different diet from our 1800s American diet, the ingredients that were used in their cuisine to prepare authentic dishes were not as commonly available in the states. So, recipes had to be adapted to our selections of produce and proteins.
This led to a whole new style of Asian food, known as American Chinese cuisine. While Chinese food was originally only cooked for the workers in this country, this adapted cuisine became very popular very quickly. In the early 1900s, Chinese citizens were afforded merchant visas to work in the US. Small restaurants started opening up that served what we have come to know as Chinese food here. It has an authenticity and identity all its own. Americans have loved eating what we call Chinese food for over 100 years.
Crab Rangoon is authentically Asian American and likely one of the most popular appetizers on Chinese restaurant menus. Cream cheese is an American invention and staple. It is often used to spread on bagels, in dips, and in cheesecake. Most of us have eaten cream cheese or have a brick of it on our fridges. Crab is eaten all over Asia, as well as in coastal areas of the US.
Putting the two together was a leap of faith, likely originating at Trader Vic’s. The idea was to stuff wonton skins with something that tasted rich and could stand up to being deep-fried in oil. This was considered a perfect little package that would pair well with “exotic” cocktails that might have been made with fresh fruit juice and rum – think Mai Tais. The richness of these filled wontons might have encouraged guests to drink a little more of these fancy cocktails. This was a good business strategy back in the day.
Why Air Fry Crab Rangoon?
Using an air fryer instead of a deep fryer makes these delicates much healthier because you don’t use a ton of oil. It is also really tasty and easy to do. I encourage you to try this if you enjoy these appetizers and want to reduce the excess fat and calories. They will still get crispy on the outside and warm on the inside.
While I do love the presentation of crab Rangoon shaped into little origami baskets or purses, I find that triangles work well in the air fryer because you can flip them over for even browning. And, the filling does not seep out. This recipe calls for triangles. If you have some extra time and want to get creative, watch a YouTube video on how to shape crab Rangoon into baskets.
Can I use Imitation Crab?
You can use imitation crab and a lot of Chinese restaurants do just that. But why would you? Okay, imitation crab is less expensive than fresh lump crab meat. However, these products can be salt bombs. So why do that if you want a healthier version of crab Rangoon?
And let’s be honest, do we really know the type or quality of the fish in those pink sticks? And let’s not forget about the starchy fillers and food coloring to make them look like crab meat.
Rangoon made with the real thing are just so delicious and you really don’t need a lot of crab meat. That said, if you are on a strict budget, as many of us are, go ahead and use the imitation crab so you can at least try your hand at air-fried crab Rangoon. Or, substitute those cute little rock shrimp that are full of crabby flavor and are reasonably priced.
Air Fryer Crab Rangoon with Duck Sauce Recipe
- 3/4 cup apricot jam or orange marmalade
- 4 TBS rice wine vinegar
- 1/2 tsp tamari, soy sauce, or coconut aminos
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 1 tsp fresh ginger, minced
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- Pinch of cayenne (more for a kick of heat)
- 8 ounces fresh lump crab meat
- 8 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
- 2 scallions, minced
- 1 tsp tamari, soy sauce, or coconut aminos
- 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1 large egg + 1 tsp water, beaten
- 1 (12 oz) package wonton wrappers
- Vegetable oil spray
Total time:35 min – Prep time:25 min – Cook time:10 min per batch – Serves:6 people
1. In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the jam, vinegar, tamari, garlic, ginger, chili powder, and cayenne until well combined. Set aside while you make the wontons.
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the crab, cream cheese, scallions, tamari, and Worcestershire sauce. Mix well but not into a paste. The texture of the crab is really nice.
2. Preheat your air fryer to 350°F while you fill the wontons.
3. Place the wonton wrappers on a clean, flat work surface. Place 1 tablespoon of the crab and cheese mixture in the center of each wrapper. Moisten the edges of the wrappers with a little beaten egg to act as glue. Fold the wontons into a triangle-shaped packet. Press the edges together to seal the wontons tightly.
4. Spray the basket or crisper plate of the air fryer with a thin layer of vegetable oil. Place the wontons in a single layer inside the air fryer and spray the tops of the wontons with a little more oil. Cook for 5 minutes.
5. Flip the Rangoon over and cook for an additional 3 to 5 minutes until golden and crispy. Keep an eye on them because all air fryers cook differently. Continue until all batches are completed. You can keep them warm in a low oven if you can wait that long to eat them.
6. Place the duck dipping sauce in individual ramekins and serve with the hot crab Rangoon.
I like to follow these appetizers with a meal of fried rice with lots of vegetables and spicy Korean chicken wings.