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Hairy task of feasting on hairy crabs

ALL that cracking, dismembering, sucking, slurping, chewing and spitting is a lot of work - and all to savor one little hairy crab. But it's worth it. Chen Ye reports.

One of the rituals of autumn in Shanghai is eating hairy crabs - simply steamed, with a sauce of vinegar and ginger and, of course, huangjiu or yellow wine.

Gourmands wait all year to savor the rich, fatty orange and yellow roe and eggs, to taste the tender flesh, crunch the cartilage and suck the juices from every last pincer. It's a mess; it's a lot of work to eat a little crab. Piles of spat-out crab shell beside a dinner plate are considered quite proper in China.

"Even foreigners like me who barely use chopsticks want to try the fresh, fatty and delicious crustaceans," says Georgi Peychinov, Bulgaria's ambassador to China who recently made a trip to Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu Province, so-called "cradle of hairy crabs."

But it should be noted that chopsticks don't help a lot with the complicated task of dismembering and eating a crab; it's the fingers that count.

While Yangcheng Lake crabs are the most famous - and the most expensive, with special certification tags - there are other excellent crabs from other lakes with similar environments and firm hard-pan clay bottoms.

The hard surface makes the crab use its muscles to "tiptoe" and scuttle about, so the pincer muscles are large and meaty. The iron-rich clay and minerals in the water give the flesh a delicate taste and the tips of the pincers are often reddish for from walking on the clay. Otherwise the crabs are unmottled.

Because of the hair on the pincers, they are called hairy crabs or mitten crabs.

Yangcheng Lake between Taihu Lake and the Yangtze River is the place of pilgrimage for hairy crab lovers.

"Everyone thinks of Yangcheng Lake, however, the Lotus Flower Island in the lake is very special but often missed by many people," says Jin Hui, deputy manager of Shanghai One-Day Trip Ltd.

Within Yangcheng Lake, the Lotus Flower Island is in the middle, shaped like a lotus flower, where around 1,200 people live.

They make a living by raising and harvesting crabs and claim the best Chinese mitten crabs originally come from the island area. The water, only two meters deep, is clear and pure and filled with abundant seaweed and freshwater animals.

The crab harvest began on September 16 this year.

Each year, the crab production in Yangcheng Lake is estimated at around 1,300 tons.

The one-day hairy crab trip is a new route launched this season by Shanghai One-Day Trip Ltd. The cost per person is around 100 yuan (US$15).

"There are many fake Yangcheng Lake crabs in the market, and this new trip helps them learn to distinguish between the authentic and the fake. It's good for connoisseurs too," says Jin.

Both males and females have roe (the females also have eggs), and while the males are larger, it's generally believed that the roe and eggs of the females are more delicious, sweeter. Many Chinese believe that it's good for women's reproductive health to eat the roe and eggs.

Females have a broader, rounder underside, while the males have a smaller triangular underside.

The easiest way to identify a real Yangcheng Lake crab is the applied security ring with a serial number for each crab. Eating at reputable restaurants is advised if customers want the real thing.

Crab museum

On the Lotus Flower Island, visitors can eat their fill and then visit the newly opened the Hairy Crab Museum to pick up some crab lore. It also features the daily lives of crab farmers.

There's a story that long ago a man named Ba Jie led soldiers and civilians in digging a river channel near the Kunshan area to handle flood runoff.

But as the water area shrank, an army of hungry eight-legged crabs emerged and destroyed the crops. According to legend, people were terrified by the creatures and stunned by the disaster.

Since Chinese eat all kinds of things, Ba Jie suggested eating the "bugs" - and soon the plague of crabs was wiped out. They became a delicacy.

Messy eating

It's quite difficult for foreigners - and many Chinese as well - to eat the crabs. Some don't even bother.

Here are some basics:

Prepare a lot of napkins; some people wear bibs because there's a lot of juice. Some people use special tools, such as small mallets, scissors and tweezers.

Remove the shell or carapace. Pull out the abdomen, break the crab in two and remove all legs and claws.

Remove the stringy gills and don't eat them.

Eat the roe first.

Then eat the meaty middle section with a lot of cartilage. Some people just eat it and spit out the cartilage. Others use tools to pick away at the meat.

Then onto the claws. This is where the mallet and tweezers help. Some people just suck and chew the small segments and spit out the shell.

It's messy but fun.

What not to eat

According to traditional Chinese medicine, crabs contain a lot of yin (cold) energy.

So don't eat these together with hairy crab:

Persimmon: From the nature of a drug, both crab and persimmon are cold, so if people eat them together, it'll be really harmful for their stomach and spleen. Persimmon has tannic acid, and crab owns protein, when they mix together, the basic function of stomach will be disturbed.

Peanuts: Peanuts have lots of fat, which means when people eat crab and peanuts together, fat and the cold energy cause diarrhea immediately.

Eggplant: It's harmful for the stomach.

Cold beverage: Icy drinks such as cold cola, soda water, ice cream will all cause diarrheas.

Guava: It's harmful for the stomach and might cause throw-up.

Sweet potato: It will form concretion in body.


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