The story appears on

Page B2 , B3

October 20, 2011

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature » iDEAL

Full steam ahead - Let's get cracking on those hairy crabs

ISABELLA Gao, an Australian-born Shanghainese, flew to the city last week with a single purpose: to eat authentic Yangcheng Lake hairy crab.

"I've waited for the creamy roe and sweet meat all year long. I am looking forward to having a feast of hairy crab," she says.

A cool northwest wind has been blowing, lowering the lake temperature and turning the female roe orange and creamy. This is the "golden" period to eat female crabs, though males are also tasty.

In a couple of weeks connoisseurs will prefer the males since their whitish fluid gao becomes delectable and their meat is sweet and firm.

Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu Province is China's most famous production area for hairy crabs, also known as mitten crabs for the golden hairs on the pincers.

Crab farmer Liu Hongcai tells Shanghai Daily that this year is destined to be a da nian or "big year." The crab production and quality are both higher than last year due to the lower water level caused by drought this summer. But shallow water is also warmer, meaning abundant aquatic life and tasty crabs.

Females grow faster than males and the best time to eat them is mid-October; males are at their best in November.

Fan Shouling, secretary-general of Shanghai Fisheries Trade Association, estimates the production of Yangcheng Lake this year at 2,000 tons.

There's never enough hairy crab and some producers for other lake claim their bounty comes from Yangcheng Lake. Actually many authentic crabs from Yangcheng Lake are labeled.

Shanghai Daily visited fish markets in Shanghai and found that one medium-size hairy crab from Yangcheng Lake is priced at more than 100 yuan (US$15.70).

"Actually, many other areas such as eastern Taihu Lake share similar geographic and climate conditions with Yangcheng Lake and they also produce high-quality hairy crabs but with comparative lower prices," says Cheng Yongxu, a professor at Shanghai Ocean University whose main area of research is hairy crabs.

Hairy crabs are also raised in some lakes in Taiwan, he says, adding that countries such as the Netherlands also raise hairy crabs.

"We are now doing research to find out whether it's possible to raise hairy crabs in the Tibet Autonomous Region," he says. If so, then the many Han Chinese who have settled in Tibet can enjoy the delicacy. "In the future, hairy crabs of high quality will not be limited to Yangcheng Lake," he says.

Environmentalists are concerned about rapid expansion of crab farming and say it should be strictly controlled so that local ecological balances can be maintained.

"Large amounts of crab feed, rich in nitrogen and potassium, are poured into lakes during the crab-raising season and these can cause eutrophication or excessive nutrients in the water," says Sally Lin, an engineer at the Shanghai Academy of Environmental Science.

Too much nutrition can cause excessive plant life and cut off oxygen, causing animals to die. This is what happens when nitrogen-rich pollution causes algae blooms.

Besides, the addition of synthetic growth hormones and antibiotics to crab feed is very controversial. Some Hong Kong media reports say synthetic hormones found in hairy crabs imported from Jiangsu Province may have undesirable side effects.

But a spokesman for Hong Kong's department of food and environmental hygiene told Shanghai Daily that last year's test results from 110 imported hairy crabs were all satisfactory.

Shanghai Daily talks to hairy crab lovers - a farmer, a professional crab "cracker," a chef and two diners.

Crab farmer

Interviewing a crab farmer at this time of year isn't easy because he's out on Yangcheng Lake 12 hours a day, feeding and catching crab, especially in October and November, the harvest season.

We finally catch up with farmer Liu Hongquan in his crab "pond," a netted enclosure in the center of Yangcheng Lake, and watch him catch crabs in a green net on his boat.

"This year is a great year for hairy crabs. Compared with last year, the production and quality are much higher," Liu says, holding up a big female crab with a green back, white abdomen, golden claws and yellow "mittens."

"The fresh and clean water, the shallow depth of around 1.8 meters and the hard lake bed rich in calcium and minerals all provide hairy crab a perfect living environment," says Liu.

Looking like shiny green jade, the lake water is clean and transparent and we can see small fish and aquatic plants.

Liu says the farming methods and feed are special. "Unlike other farmers who feed with grain, we feed crabs with shrimp fish and freshwater snails to provide enough nutrition."

Every year farmers plant grass that floats on the surface; it helps purify water and maintain the ecological balance of the lake; it also helps provide a place for mating.

Liu, who works for a crab-farming company, says he makes good money, but also adds that the work is hard and demanding.

Crab raising starts in February when farmers put juvenile crabs in the pond; they grow fast in the next five months. In July farmers catch some samples to check the quality.

A hairy crab competition is usually held at that time. Each farmer takes samples that are judged according to size and appearance. This year, as in the past, Liu's crabs are judged to be above average.

Every day, from 6am to 7pm, whatever the weather, Liu and other farmers are out on their boats, feeding the crabs, monitoring their growth and making sure that the netted enclosure is secure.

"When we are on the boat, there's no TV or Internet and we're isolated," he says. "But it's worth all the effort when we see the crabs grow big and fat for harvest."

Crab chef

Two years ago, Li Shanggui, a Cantonese chef with 15 years' experience, joined the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake hotel. He fell in love with hairy crabs.

"The taste is totally different from the sea crabs I served in Guangdong Province, they're very sweet and creamy," he says.

Cantonese chefs insist on fresh ingredients and the lakeside location and fertile countryside provide highest-quality crabs, fish and various vegetables.

Gradually Li became friends with many crab farmers and he is often seen in local fish markets communicating in his Cantonese-accented Mandarin with Kunshan-dialect speakers.

Every year at this time, Li launches a new crab menu. He has developed his personal cuisine, combining Cantonese techniques and local Suzhou cuisine culture that features a rich taste, certain sweetness and balance.

"I have launched so many crab dishes, some traditional, some creative but the best way to present hair crab is by steaming," he says.

But steaming isn't simple and the time should be precise; in the kitchen there's a timer in front of the bamboo steamer. A female crab weighing 200 grams should only be steamed to achieve perfect flavor and texture.

Instead of water, the chef uses beer, which is also the way locals steam their crab. As a result, the crab meat absorb some of the malty aroma.

For a Chinese crab feast, from starters to final dim sum, each dish contains hairy crab, some meat or some roe and various other ingredients. This poses a challenge because dishes must be distinctive in flavor and texture or diners will tire of their sameness.

Li's answer is to pair the crab with various ingredients, such as seasonal greens, light chicken and silky, tender tofu. Some dishes are stir-fried, some are pan-fried; some are braised; there are soup dishes and jellied dishes, all making for a rich experience.

We recommend one of his signature dishes, hairy crab stewed with chicken, which is also praised by famous Shanghai food critic Shen Hongfei.

All the gao and roe are melted into the chicken juice; the flavor is rich and balanced.

The crab absorbs the fatty chicken flavor and the flavor is rich and mild.

Chef Li's tips:

? In traditional Chinese medicine, crab is a "cold" (yin energy) food, so it should be balanced with some "warm" (yang energy) rice wine; the wine should also be warm in temperature. Drinking a cup of sweetened ginger tea is also recommended to warm the stomach.

? It's not necessary to dip with the vinegar sauce when sucking the crab roe since the strong flavor of vinegar can overwhelm the mild and creamy crab taste.

Crab cracker

When eating crab roe tofu, crab meat xiaolongbao (steamed bun) or crab claw meat stir-fried with asparagus, diners may wonder who does all that hard work of actually getting the crab meat out of the shells and the claws, and picking out the last bits.

Liu Aiguo, assistant chef of Ye Shanghai, has more than five years' experience in cracking crabs. During our visit, Liu and three other employees are busy cracking crab and pick out all the meat to be used in the hairy crab feast in the evening.

Every day they pick out around 10 kilograms of crab meat, roe and gao, says Liu. October and November are the busiest months of the year.

There's a clear division of labor. Liu himself picks the meat and roe from the crab body, another worker takes the roe out of the shell, another takes meat from the pincers, the third takes meat from the legs.

"Although the chef gives the crab dish its flavor, our work directly impacts the texture," says Liu, adding that it's important to pull the meat intact from the pincers for dishes such as crab claws stir-fried with asparagus. The meat should be firm and silky.

Liu's tips:

? Use the right tool. Although ancient Chinese insisted on using xie ba jian (eight kinds of utensils including scissors, mallet, scratcher and spoon), all that's really needed are a scissor, a long sharp fork with two prongs and a forceps. The scissor is used to cut off the big claw; the forceps is used to cut off the pincers. The end of the fork is used to get the meat out of the body and pincer and the sharp end is for getting the roe and tender meat from the belly and the claw.

? Do it in the right order. Remove the shell, cut the claw and pincer, get the roe and gao and finally pick out he meat.

Liu is so expert that he can extract all the meat and roe with the least damage to the shell; then he can reassemble the shell into the original shape of the crab.

Where to find authentic Yangcheng Lake hairy crab

? Yi Feng Court, Fairmont Yangcheng Lake

At the hotel on the scenic shore, you can savor the crab and enjoy the lake view. The chef presents a mouth-watering crab feast menu.

Address: 3668 West Ma'anshan Rd, Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province

? Sui Yuan, Doubletree by Hilton Huaqiao/Kunshan

Chef Alen Liu presents hairy crab in a classical Shanghai style. You can either eat the crab in the restaurant or order and take out. We recommend the crab meat xiaolongbao with rich juices and creamy crab roe.

Tel: 3921-5700 ext 6266

Address: 2 Zhaofeng Rd, Huaqiao CBD, Kunshan City, Jiangsu Province

? Ye Shanghai

This restaurant specializes in Shanghainese cuisine. In addition to steamed hairy crab with rich and firm meat, diners can try creative crab dishes, including refreshing crab meat with winter melon broth, and sautéed crab meat with sesame flavored pastry.

Tel: 6311-2323

Address: 338 Huangpi Rd S., Shanghai

? Yi Long Court, The Peninsula, Shanghai

Chef Tao Guojian launched the season's new hairy crab feast menu. He balances the crab flavor with other fresh ingredients, such as mushrooms, greens and beef.

Tel: 2327-6742

Address: 32 Zhongshan Rd E1, Shanghai

? Wei Jing Ge, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund

The restaurant equips diners with traditional crab implements, including scissors and forceps and serves seasonal chrysanthemum tea. This lets you experience how Chinese scholars enjoyed crab in ancient times. We recommend soup noodle topped with crab roe.

Tel: 6322-9988

Address: 2 Zhongshan Rd E1

Crab lovers

Wang Linyi

Profession: Co-owner of a media outsourcing company

Q: What's your earliest hairy crab memory?

A: When I was in high school, I tried steamed hairy crab. It was wonderful. From then on, every year I would eat the delicacy.

Q: What do you like so much about hairy crab?

A: First, the sweet and mild flavor. Second, you have to use your hands; I get a sense of accomplishment. When I eat with my friends, we sometimes compete to see who is the fastest at cracking the crab and extracting all the meat and roe.

Q: What's your favorite crab dish?

A: Steaming is the best way to appreciate the original flavor.

Q: How many hairy crabs can you eat in one meal?

A: Five is my record but I expect to break it soon.

Q: Have you eaten hairy crab yet this year?

A: I've had some from other areas but I will eat the authentic Yangcheng Lake crab at the end of November when it's a little cheaper.

John Isaacs

Profession: Wine columnist

Q: When did you first eat hairy crab?

A: My first hairy crab experience was in Hong Kong in the mid-1980s. When the crab was served, I was even less enthused since it looked like a terribly troublesome little thing to eat. I was also concerned that the obligatory vinegar dipping sauce would clash with the lovely white Burgundy we're enjoying that evening.

All my doubts we assuaged when I took the first bite of the delicate flesh and a sweet pungency enveloped my palate. I've been a big fan ever since, though I usually go light on the vinegar for the sake of my white wine or Champagne.

Q: Why do you like hairy crab?

A: The meat is naturally sweet with abundant fresh flavors and excellent flavor intensity. Another reason I love hairy crabs is that they are seasonal, something you can only enjoy during the autumn. For me the annual advent of the crab season in Shanghai is another fine way to celebrate life.

Q: Give us a wine pairing suggestion.

A: In general, I usually favor a male crab with a high-quality fresh white wine like a Chablis, Albarino or top Sauvignon Blanc. I prefer to serve female crabs with sparkling wines and Champagne that also have good acidity, since the bubbles and acidity cleanse the palate and help digest the rich crab roe.

Q: Have you tasted hairy crab this year?

A: Last week I flew from Italy to Shanghai and I enjoyed my first hairy crab this year. It was a great way to come home.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend