Autumn in Asia poses a danger to my waistline as the season dishes up Chinese baked pastries and other gourmet treats during the Mid-Autumn Festival. I also have to watch my cholesterol levels as tasty mooncakes make way for another autumn delicacy - the Shanghai Hairy Crab or 上海毛蟹.
Chinese Mitten Crab / Photo courtesy of University of Delaware
Also known as the Chinese mitten crab or 大閘蟹 (big sluice crab), this crustacean is a seasonal treat for many Chinese communities in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong and China. Unlike the Tasmania King Crab or Mud Crab, this crab with furry claws which resemble mittens, is no bigger than the fist.
Sources of the Shanghai Hairy Crab
Crab harvest in Yangcheng Lake / Photo courtesy of Xinhua
The crab is found mainly in the coastal estuaries of eastern Asia from Korea to China's Fujian province but the best produce is sourced from the Yangcheng Lake in China's Jiangsu province. It is widely believed that the lake's ideal environment with perfect water quality and abundance of aquatic life breeds the best crabs with sweeter roe and meat. So popular is the Yangcheng crabs that the Chinese will spend some 700 yuan or approximately USD105 per kilogram for a taste of their rich pasty roe and sweet flesh.
Yangcheng Lake crabs make their way to Beijing / Photo courtesy of Xinhua
With many other areas in China peddling fraudulent Yangcheng crabs, the local authorities have stepped in to license and regulate all farms in Yangcheng Lake. Genuine Yangcheng crabs will carry tags bearing their serial number, the name of the farm and its phone number. Another popular source is Lake Tai Hu and most of the crabs are exported to other parts of Asia where they fetch even higher prices.
The crab is prized for its roe, which ripens in the 9th and 10th lunar month or late September to November. Some would argue the yellow and creamy roe from male crabs is better than the rich and thick reddish orange roe of the females. Whatever the preference, most hairy crab gastronomes would agree that the best way to eat them is simply by steaming and paired with a dipping sauce of black vinegar and julienne ginger. A freshly brew ginger tea or Shaoxing style Huangjiu (yellow wine) is often paired with the crab in most restaurants.
If you're eating the crab at home or a roadside stall, then your hands and a teaspoon to scoop up the roe is likely all you'll need. Restaurants will usually provide 8 different accessories to help deconstruct the crab to accentuate the whole dining experience. The more upmarket establishments will even offer to de-shell the crab for you after you've enjoyed the roe.
One of the best places to enjoy the crab is to head directly to the source at Yangcheng Lake. If you can't make the trip, then the next best thing to join every other hairy crab lover and dine in Shanghai where the tasty crustacean dominates the city's Autumn culinary scene. You'll find the crab in every market and restaurant during this season.
The Shanghai Hairy Crab will also make headlines in other Chinese cities and many Chinese and Cantonese restaurants in Asia especially Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. So check out your local Chinese restaurants to tuck into the Shanghai Hairy Crab.
Oh, woe is me! I wish I could be there scoffing down those crabs - I'm inspired to make curried prawns for dinner (poor substitute). Thank you Lionel for such a tantalising tale; you have made me very hungry. Regards, Tony