Monday, July 9, 2018

Maryellen's Crab Rangoon Dip

Inspired by a classic from the world famous Trader Vic!

It felt appropriate for my long awaited return to an actual recipe themed post to tie into that big research project I’ve been dropping hints about for literal months, on Instagram in particular. As part of my Master’s program, I wrote two article length papers that I’m trying to get published in an academic journal rather than a dissertation. One of them – you might be surprised to hear – has to do with American Girl, and the other focuses on something that’s really become my historical wheelhouse: the history and influence of tiki bars on shaping American perceptions of Polynesia! 

Since this blog is pretty G rated and has a lot of younger readers, I’m unfortunately not going to be sharing any of the famous rum based cocktails that cemented the tiki bar as an icon of midcentury American cuisine. Instead, the recipe I’m sharing with you today is an interpretation of a dish invented by one of the most famous people involved in stoking the tiki craze: Trader Vic!

Westerners have been obsessed with Polynesia since its “discovery” in the 1700s. It’s always represented something far off and exotic thanks to its literal distance and pristine climate. It’s also been prohibitively expensive for most people to visit, giving it a mysterious allure that made it the popular subject of literature, art, and film. 

It got on my radar because my parents are both big fans of the tiki aesthetic, and frequently lament the closure of the Trader Vic’s location in New York City where they’d often go for Happy Hour. Tiki bars are hard not to be a little charmed by, as their usually immersive décor does make it feel like you’re stepping into paradise if only for a few hours. Which is exactly the point! The fun cocktails and food is really an added bonus. 

And because I never do these things halfway, I’m now the proud owner of way too many books (cookbooks and otherwise) about all things tiki:

This isn’t even all of them!

The first tiki bar was Don the Beachcomber, opened in Hollywood, California in 1933. Its owner Donn Beach – real name Ernest Beaumont Gantt – had spent his younger years traveling the Caribbean and South Pacific before settling in Hollywood and making a living renting out artifacts from his travels to movie studios. Some of these artifacts would then decorate his bar, giving it a really unusual look and feel that set it apart from other establishments of the time. 

During the Depression, Americans were desperate for anything that could provide them with a night out that didn’t cost a fortune, while also taking them away from the troubles that faced them in their real lives. Don the Beachcomber made them feel like they were being transported far away from their problems, while allowing them to indulge in some fun new cocktails in this post Prohibition world. 

One of the early admirers of Donn Beach was Victor Bergeron, who would later become known around the world as Trader Vic:

After visiting Don the Beachcomber and haggling to buy some of his props, Bergeron returned home to his own bar and restaurant and overnight changed it to a Polynesian theme, thus starting the first Trader Vic’s. 

Tiki bars would continue to grow in popularity during World War II, although the war and people’s increasing familiarity with the South Pacific because of it is not the only thing that influenced its grip on public consciousness. These bars were where Hollywood celebrities dined, and featured exotic, unusual menus that caught people’s attention. In an era before ethnic restaurants had become fully established as a normal part of the American experience, the food offered by places like Trader Vic was extremely unique and exciting. It wasn’t something you could get anywhere else, and certainly wasn’t something you cooked in your own home. 

That’s because for all Trader Vic and his imitators talked up their establishments as being Polynesian, they were actually mostly serving American interpretations of Chinese food. Trader Vic relied on Chinese chefs and took his recipes seriously, really wanting to create that unique dining experience for his customers that mimicked foreign cuisine but tweaked it to suit American palates of the time. 

Trader Vic is also responsible for creating my favorite tiki cocktail: the Mai Tai! There’s some debate about whether he or Donn Beach was the first to offer a drink by that name on their menu, but Trader Vic’s Mai Tai recipe is the standard most restaurants (if they know their stuff) follow. 

Interest in the South Pacific continued to boom in the 1950’s and 60’s, which is why Maryellen is the hostess of this particular post. Fans of the California establishments started opening their own businesses, like the Mai-Kai in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida in 1956. Travel to Hawaii became more affordable in the post war period too, which increased public interest, as did Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. 

The 50’s really was a period where Hawaiian shirts, Hawaiian inspired parties and food were in vogue, and tiki bowling alleys, hotels, and even apartment complexes weren’t uncommon in the period. The government found promoting Hawaiian cuisine – along with Mexican and a few other choice ethnic cuisines – useful during the Cold War period as well, as it helped create the narrative that America was a melting pot of many different wonderful nationalities, while the Soviet Union was oppressive and restrictive in comparison. Note that this didn’t extend to African American cuisine, as they didn’t want to rile people up about that whole Civil Rights thing that might pop the bubble of their nice little multicultural narrative… 

Through its heyday, Trader Vic’s published multiple cookbooks, usually claiming to have been written by Bergeron himself, but probably actually done by a ghost writer. 1968’s Trader Vic’s Pacific Island Cookbook includes a recipe for crab Rangoon, an appetizer that’s perhaps the restaurant’s most famous single recipe besides the Mai Tai:

Although it gets its name from the colonial name for the capital city of Myanmar (now called Yangon), this dish is 100% a Trader Vic invention, and has no connection with Myanmar or the city. 

Traditionally, crab Rangoon is basically crab, cream cheese, A-1 sauce, and garlic powder wrapped in a wonton wrapper and then fried. Spicy Chinese inspired dipping sauces with green onions are its usual accompaniment, and it’s found its way onto many, many restaurants menus in the years since its invention. I’ve actually had multiple friends inform me it’s a favorite of theirs from local Chinese or Korean restaurants and they had no idea it was originally a dish created by a white westerner who pretended to be an expert on all things Polynesia. 

Authentic fried crab Rangoon is super delicious, but as we all know, frying can be super messy. It’s also a pain because the chef is usually stuck at the stove doing the prep while everyone else is eating the tasty fried treats you’re making. Since I was going to be making this dish at my parent’s house (and I’m not sure my mom has ever fully forgiven me for the mess I made with my latkes five years ago…) we decided the best option was to make a dip inspired by this tiki bar classic. 

I wanted to keep it simple like the Trader Vic recipe, so my base was 12 ounces of cream cheese, a cup of shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and 1/2 of a cup of sour cream. Monterey Jack is essentially flavorless, so it was a good option to give the dip more body to it without changing the flavor profile too much. 

I chopped up three green onions, added in two teaspoons of A-1 sauce, a teaspoon of garlic powder, and finally, six ounces of canned crab meat. Everything got mixed together…

And poured into a baking dish, which went into the oven for about 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Just watch yours and take it out when it’s golden brown and bubbling, like any cheese based dip.

To make this more authentic, you should probably use or make wonton chips so you get that fried texture and flavor to the dip. In a pinch, pita chips work just as well, which is what we went for. My mom had perfectly thematic bowls to serve them in:

To help make their customers feel like they were taking a mini vacation, tiki bars are also famous for selling or offering little freebies for people to take home with them. Their signature cocktail mugs are still a well established item of popular culture, but Trader Vic’s also included little rubber figurines of Menehunes, little people from Hawaiian mythology that are known for their craftsmanship. My parents still have quite a collection of these little rubber guys, and I’m pretty sure you can still get them at the Trader Vic’s locations today.

The only problem with the dip right out of the oven was that I burned the roof of my mouth in my impatience to try a bite. My sister helped me get these action shots so you can see what the consistency looked like up close.

The good thing about crab Rangoon for a lot of people is that it’s not overly crabby. There’s definitely a hint of its flavor there if you know what to look for, but the cream cheese and everything else tends to keep it from being too fishy for people who aren’t fans of seafood, of which there seem to be a lot of in my life. This New Englander doesn’t personally understand that, but hey, to each their own. 

Since this recipe was my attempt at interpreting the original Trader Vic recipe, I think it could do with a little tweaking. The sour cream wasn’t really in keeping with the original flavor profile of the dish, so it didn’t taste too different from other crab dips I’ve had in some ways. Maybe adding a little more A-1 sauce or adding a dipping sauce would help seal the deal? 

Still, this was easy enough to make, and it was really delicious. I’m looking forward to trying to tweak the recipe for my friends back in DC. Maybe for a housewarming party at my new apartment!

Tiki bars fell out of favor in the 1970’s for a lot of reasons. After decades of popularity, they weren’t really trendy anymore, and younger generations were uncomfortable with their at times culturally appropriative or misogynistic décor. Plus, it just wasn’t “cool” to be hanging out at a spot that people like Richard Nixon patronized – Tricky Dick was a huge Trader Vic van and frequently ate out at the location in Washington, DC. 

Bad quality imitators and the advent of affordable, plentiful Chinese food options also helped push them out of favor. Successful businesses like Trader Vic’s survived, but lots of smaller establishments closed as founders retired or competition got too fierce. Even Trader Vic’s isn’t the empire it once was: there are only two locations left in the United States. 

But they’ve been making a comeback. Part of it is the appeal of midcentury kitsch, although people who dismiss it as such are missing out on how much of an influence this really was and is on Americans and their image of Polynesia. It’s also been suggested that this resurgence has a lot to do with the reason these bars were created in the first place: once again, people are looking for more affordable distractions from the uncertainty of their day to day lives. Tickets to Hawaii are still expensive, but stepping into a tropical themed bar is a good distraction from politics and financial trouble. 

I hope you enjoyed taking a peek into the research I’ve been doing over the last two years! There’s lots of weird, fun recipes from this period, and I’d like to share more of them with you.

And I’ll definitely be making more of this dip. As you can see, everyone hated it!


  1. Great post!

    My daughter who hates cream cheese loves crag rangoons...I just don't tell her what's in them and no one else has either (she's 25 in a week). :)

    1. That's too funny! Hope she doesn't stumble upon this post... hahaha