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October 18, 2018

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From ‘giant spiders’ to favorite dish

Hairy crabs have been celebrated in eastern China for hundreds of years. The delectable taste of the rich, creamy crab roe and paste as well as the sweet, tender crab meat is irresistible.

China’s craze for this seasonal delicacy grows stronger every year and it can be seen everywhere, even making its way into spaghetti and bread.

This week, we take a look at hairy crabs farmed in the far west of China and mouthwatering new trends.

From Yangcheng Lake to Bosten Lake

The production of hairy crabs is now a billion-dollar business.

The most prominent label is that of Yangcheng Lake, a freshwater lake to the northeast of Suzhou in Jiangsu Province. Because of their supreme quality, crabs farmed and harvested in the region are expensive.

Yangcheng Lake is almost synonymous with hairy crabs in public perception and the majority of crabs in markets, restaurants and online shops are sold under the Yangcheng Lake label.

But the reality comes as a shock.

In 2017, Jiangsu’s statistics showed that the production of Yangcheng Lake crabs was valued at 300 million yuan (US$43.37 million), but 30 billion yuan worth of “Yangcheng Lake” crabs were sold on the market.

That means 99 percent of Yangcheng Lake crabs were not authentic. Those crabs farmed in other locations only wore the plastic Yangcheng Lake ring to boost sales.

There’s a Chinese word — xizaoxie — that translates as “bathed crab.” Some farmers transport their hairy crabs to Yangcheng Lake and let them stay in the lake for a while, with the crabs then harvested and sold as Yangcheng Lake crabs.

A few years back, farmers went to great lengths to associate their hairy crabs with Yangcheng Lake because consumers only recognized the Yangcheng Lake label. Now, people are more open to buy crabs from other production regions such as Taihu Lake and Gaoyou Lake.

Every fall, the Shangri-La Group launches a nationwide culinary campaign, a hairy crabs festival, and invites top Chinese chefs to create special hairy crab dishes. The chefs have looked beyond the Yangcheng Lake label and sourced crabs from different production regions.

Anthony Dong, executive Chinese chef at the Futian Shangri-La in Shenzhen’s Shang Garden restaurant, decided to use hairy crabs grown 2,757 miles away in Bosten Lake in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to make squid ink braised fragrant rice with hairy crab and scallop.

Traditionally hairy crabs are farmed in the Yangtze River Delta region because the species inhabits rivers and estuaries. But 15 years ago, some people decided to look for opportunities in Xinjiang in China’s far west, in completely opposite direction from the Yangtze River estuary.

People brave enough to try new things are often referred to as the first people to eat crabs as the crustacean has a vicious appearance. Shaoxing native Wang Zhigang was the aquaculture farmer who introduced hairy crabs to Bohu County.

“I came to Bohu in 2003 to explore the local environment after learning about it from a friend of a friend. I found the lake environment and resources were excellent and very suited for farming hairy crabs and fish. I started farming hairy crabs here in 2004,” Wang said.

Production in the first year was about 5 tons and they were mostly sold in Urumqi, the capital city, as that’s where market demand was.

“The locals in Bohu didn’t recognize the species at all, they called them giant spiders and didn’t know that the hairy crabs were edible. We introduced the delicacy and taught people how to cook and eat the crabs,” he said.

But year by year as Wang developed his aquaculture business in the Bosten Lake region, the locals started to accept the delicacy and even grew fond of the sophisticated crustacean, which was a major contrast to the meat-oriented local cuisine.

Wang taught the locals to steam hairy crabs or make spicy stir-fry with chilis and hot sauces. Now he tries to introduce wined hairy crabs.

This year, he’s sold around 20 tons of hairy crabs in Bohu County alone.

Wang started to sell the hairy crabs back to inland markets in 2006 to 2007 and found they weren’t recognized at all.

“People thought it was a fraud because nobody believed hairy crabs could be farmed in Xinjiang, but after I sent the crabs, they were impressed by the quality,” said Wang.

Not only is the water in Bosten Lake very clean and the water levels consistent throughout the year, the crabs eat small shrimps and fish instead of commercial feed.

The hairy crabs in Xinjiang mature 20 days earlier than those farmed in the Yangtze River Delta. Crabs feed at night when the temperature drops, and the bigger temperature difference in Xinjiang enabled the crabs to eat a lot more and grow much quicker.

Production at Wang’s aquaculture base is between 50 to 100 tons in bumper years and 30 to 40 in off years. Local sales account for 70 percent of the total, while the rest is flown across China to cities including Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou and Chongqing.

As dead hairy crabs cannot be eaten, it’s a challenge to send them alive from Xinjiang to other cities. The logistics in Xinjiang are not as well developed as the more populated regions where cold-chain transportation is available.

“We try to reduce the death rate to the minimum, it’s a long way and there are uncertainties. Better quality crabs are selected to be sent out and we use ice packs to keep them cool. With more flights now available, the death rate is about four to five crabs in every 100,” said Wang.

Wang lives in Bohu most of the year, but usually comes back to Shaoxing twice. He stays one week to buy and send juvenile crabs to his base in Bohu and another two to four weeks for the Spring Festival.

The crab extravaganza

Eating hairy crabs can be a tedious task. It requires patience and fine skills to dissect the small crustacean and extract the meat and roe.

While some people enjoy the slow process, many prefer to dig in to the delicious meat and roe without dirtying the hands.

Luxurious hairy crab noodles were a trend started by restaurants such as Cejerdary a few years back. For 300 to 400 yuan, diners can get a topping of hairy crab roe, paste and meat that is often equivalent to more than 10 crabs.

Kitchen staff work as an assembly line to improve efficiency. It takes three to four people to process the edible parts of the crabs, namely the claws, legs and body.

Now, restaurants have upped their game with an even more extravagant hairy crab noodle dish.

Xiezunyuan is now one of the hottest hairy crab franchises in Shanghai. Since the start of the crab season, the lines in front of the restaurants are long and it can take hours to get a seat at the weekend.

The most expensive hairy crab delicacy is what is called a “delicious crab monster” on the menu. It is an assorted platter of sautéed crab abdomen meat, leg meat, claw meat, roe and paste served in separate bowls.

The 888 yuan set that comes with unlimited noodles or rice is enough for two to four people to share, depending on appetite. It is said that about 50 hairy crabs are used to make the dish, and considering the amount of labor required to extract meat from crabs, the high price tag is justified.

More affordable options are noodles or rice topped with sautéed hairy crab meat (98 yuan), hairy crab leg meat and asparagus (128 yuan), crab meat and shrimp topping (78 yuan) as well as crab meat and shrimp wonton (68 yuan).

Wined hairy crab is a traditional delicacy, but eating raw freshwater fish and crustacean poses potential health risks, and not everyone is accustomed to the fishy flavor.

In recent years, wined cooked hairy crabs have become very popular and they are sold in lots of restaurants and shops.

It’s also easy to make, simply boil a bottle of light soy sauce with bay leaf, Sichuan peppercorn, cinnamon stick, star anise, ginger slices and preserved plum (or dried tangerine peel/orange peel, it adds acidity), then pour in a bottle of rice wine and turn off the heat, let it sit in the covered pot for a while and then cool to room temperature.

Steam fresh hairy crabs with a few slices of ginger in the water and soak the hot crabs in the brine directly, refrigerate overnight and it’s ready to eat.

Wined hairy crabs cooked in this way are sweet, salty and quite refreshing. They don’t leave much of a smell on your hands after eating.


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