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November 28, 2009

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There's more to Yangcheng Lake than heavenly hairy crabs

AS the autumn is upon us, it's time for the annual pilgrimage to Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu Province and the ritual of eating hairy crab.

For almost two centuries it has been a tradition for Shanghai families to enjoy the crustaceans at this time of year, traveling northeast of Suzhou City to the lake or enjoying them at home.

The lake is crowded at this time of year, and restaurants around the lake, from high-end eateries to small family shops, are offering genuine hairy crabs, or da zha xie -- and other delicacies from the lake.

There's more to scenic Yangcheng Lake than crabs, and a trip makes a delightful weekend outing. It takes around one hour to cover the 80-kilometer distance from Shanghai.

My trip this year was an opportunity to rediscover the lake and its other creatures that end up on my plate.

We set off from downtown Shanghai on a sunny weekend. As we entered Bacheng, a small old town in Kunshan City nearest to the lake, the scenery began to shift from urban gray to refreshing green farmland.

Gradually, Yangcheng Lake unfolded in front of us, glittering like a giant silver pan in the sunlight.

Spanning Suzhou's industrial park, Kunshan and Changshu cities, Yangcheng Lake is one of the most important freshwater lakes in Jiangsu Province.

Like most Shanghai people, I had always thought Yangcheng Lake has nothing but hairy crabs.

"No, no. You're totally wrong. Yangcheng Lake has more than that," says my companion Jane Li who has worked in a lakeside hotel for almost two years.

"You have to update this old image of Yangcheng Lake."

The 120-square-kilometer lake is rich in aquatic resources, with more than 70 types of fish, such as bream, catfish, chub, angci fish (a popular Chinese fish), mandarin fish, white fish, white shrimp, plus jiayu (soft-shelled turtle) and eel.

The lake's "six treasures" are the mandarin fish, jiayu, white fish, eel, shrimp and hairy crabs.

Fishing boats are busy all year, and especially in the hairy crab season in October and November.

The scenery and the catch change with the seasons.

In early spring, there's bream, catfish, chub and white shrimp, some jumping out of the water.

Shi Bingkun has been fishing in Yangcheng Lake for more than 40 years. The 58-year-old fisherman has many fun fishing experiences.

He remembers that they used to put old straw shoes on the muddy shore at midnight, then go home and await the morning's harvest.

"Then we just picked up the shoes. Most were little things without scales, like molluscs that took refuge from the cold in our warm straw shoes," he says.

Another delicacy of the Yangcheng Lake in spring is tianluo or paludina mollusc. There's an old saying in Bacheng, "A dish of tianluo in early spring is better than a big goose," meaning it's high in nutrition. In early spring it is especially beneficial to the liver and can improve eyesight, according to traditional Chinese medicine.

Summer is the most exciting season in Yangcheng Lake. Crucian carp, salangid (icefish or noodlefish), eel, blue-shelled shrimp, catfish and many other are caught.

Clever fishermen hide rows of sawali (woven bamboo mats) in the lush reed marshes near the shore and at night they use flashlights to lure the eels.

"Summer eel is even better than ginseng," says fisherman Shi.

In Bacheng Town, dishes such as steamed eel, red sauteed eel and stir-fried spicy eel are the classics of the annual summer food fete.

And some young hairy crabs can be harvested in July. Since the water quality has been improving in recent years, crabs are growing fast and the first batch can be hauled in.

Famed cuisine includes crab wrapped in dough and crab with rice cakes.

But it's autumn before the real big hairy crabs are harvested. They have golden "hair" on their pincers, white underside, gray-green shells and yellowish tips to their claws -- the yellow comes from scuttling about on the bottom, which is rich in iron and other minerals.

In this season, a large crab area is enclosed by nets and boats shuttle back and forth.

News reports say this year's hairy crab harvest is sharply lower than last year's because the government reduced the area where crabs could be harvested, from 5,733 hectares to 2,133 hectares today. The aim is to improve water quality and the growing environment for crabs.

Prices rise accordingly. For a crab weighing 250 grams costs 60 yuan (US$8.78).

We dined on the second floor of Yifeng Hall, a newly opened restaurant on the eastern shore. It offers a panoramic view and we could watch the fishermen out on the lake.

"The crab-catching area is smaller than two years ago," says Miss Li.

The menu features numerous delicacies, including fried big-head fish, mandarin fish roll, sweet sliced lotus root, congee of red caltrop, lotus sees and gorgon euryrale (qianshi) seeds and many other locally harvested fish and plants.

The highlight of our dinner, of course, was the steamed hairy crab. After being washed and soaked in huadiao, a traditional rice wine, the crabs were steamed for eight to 10 minutes.

"It is simple to cook, but the key is selecting the best crabs," says chef Li Yonghang who personally goes out in a boat to select the best every morning.

It's served with vinegar and ginger condiment sauce and washed down with ginger red tea to warm the body, or huangjiu (yellow wine).


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