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October 13, 2011

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Daytripping for hairy crabs

THE season for eating freshwater hairy crabs is upon us. For almost two centuries, it has been an autumn ritual for nearly every Shanghai family to eat da zha xie or hairy crabs when the cold, crisp winds pick up.

While it's easy to cook hairy (or mitten) crabs at home, one of the pleasures of autumn is taking a day trip to a lake where visitors can savor the view and the delicate meat as well as the orange roe of females and the slurpy green-whitish roe of males.

The meat of the females is sweeter and this is the season when most people eat female crabs, especially for their roe. Later, the males' roe is at its best and gourmands go for the boys.



Visitors seeking a place close to Shanghai can head to Chongming Island.

The crabs are delectable, but smaller than Yangcheng Lake crabs. Chongming crabs usually weigh no more than 150 grams each.

But the tender meat and pollution-free environment have attracted many gourmands. Locals cook it with nian gao (rice cake) sautéed with red soybean sauce - a traditional Shanghai dish.

With plenty of fresh air and cool breezes, the county contains many village eateries and farm households where visitors can enjoy a meal of crabs as well as local fresh produce. Autumn is also the season for fishing and picking oranges.

How to get there: With the opening of the Changjiang Tunnel-Bridge, travel time from the city center has been shortened to less than an hour.


Changshu City, Jiangsu Province

The hairy crabs from Shajiabang River, which flows into Yangcheng Lake, taste as good as those from the lake, though they don't receive the same publicity.

Transport is convenient and the town is much quieter.

The place was famous during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-1945) when the thick reeds along the river hid soldiers of the New Fourth Army from Japanese invaders.

Near the Shajiabang Park, the Wangsi Hotel has open for more than 100 years, offering authentic Changshu dishes. One story goes that Soong Ching Ling (wife of Dr Sun Yat-sen) wanted to dine there, but there was no table. She had to put two desks together under a maple tree across the street from the hotel to have dinner.

How to get there: Shanghai-Nanjing Highway - Dongbang - Sujiahang Highway - Shajiabang Town

Taihu Lake

Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province

While Yangcheng Lake is crowded and noisy during the crab season, try some other delicious alternatives raised in similar environments.

Visitors who drive to Tai Lake in Suzhou can also dine on hairy crabs and enjoy sightseeing.

Not all of 593-acre Tai Lake is used for raising crabs - only the eastern part near the towns of Jiegang, Dongshan and Xishan. There, the water is clear with the aquatic life abundant.

These crabs are bigger than Yangcheng Lake crabs and are known as "big buddy" for their large, powerful pincers. They have a gray-green shell, white underside and tender meat.

Because of their size, they are more expensive than Yangcheng Lake crabs.

Here too you will find plenty of restaurants, delicious local cuisine and beautiful scenery.

How to get there: Take Shanghai-Nanjing Highway - Suzhou Raocheng Highway - Huan Taihu Lake Avenue - Dongshan Town

Yangcheng Lake

Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province

The best-known and most marketed destination for hairy crabs is Yangcheng Lake in neighboring Jiangsu Province. The crabs are so famous and there are so many counterfeits that Yangcheng Lake growers' association attaches a numbered disc to each crab - of course, these too can be faked.

As part of the East China Sea estuary, Yangcheng Lake has a crab-friendly environment - clean, shallow, sun-drenched waters that promote the growth of the aquatic food the crabs like to eat.

The lake bottom is hard clay, compelling the crabs to use their leg muscles to move around - this develops the muscles, so they become larger and more succulent. The clay also is rich in iron and trace miners, giving the claws a yellowish tint.

And it imparts a slightly sweet taste. Actually, the vegetables grown around the lake, such as carrots and cabbage, also taste a bit sweet due to the soil and water. Chicken eggs too are a bit sweet.

Different parts of Yangcheng Lake produce crabs of different quality.

The best crabs are from the eastern part where the water is only two meters deep with plentiful aquatic life, including fish and shrimp.

The lake draws hordes of crab lovers every autumn, especially from Shanghai, which is only an hour's drive away.

Numerous restaurants and hotels are open, especially near the eastern banks. Colorful flags with the character "crab" (xie) are fluttering in the air.

Visitors can dine on the lake in an old-fashioned boat.

Prices are negotiable.

In addition to hairy crabs, a wide variety of Suzhou cooking and local snacks are served. They include pan-fried, salted fish, sauteed green soybeans and steamed free-range chicken.

How to get there: Take the Shanghai-Nanjing Highway and take the Bacheng Exit.

Qin Lake

Jiangsu Province

The muscular hairy crabs from Qin Lake are famous for their ferocity because they have traveled a long way to get there from the Yangtze River.

Qin Lake Park is also much less crowded and noisy than Yangcheng Lake. There's a lush natural environment, rich aquatic life, plenty of fish, vegetables and fruits in the area.

A host of restaurants offer Qin Lake crabs and various local dishes.

After a crab feast, visitors can stroll in the park or take a boat ride on the lake.

How to get there: Hujia Highway - Yanjiang Highway - Jiangyin Bridge - Guangjingyan Highway - Ningjingyan Highway - Qintong Exit (in the direction of Yancheng)


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