Hi you all! Life and work has been a bit hectic recently, so I had to take a short hiatus from blogging. I do apologize for just dropping out for a few weeks without warning. I’m back now and I have a backlog of food adventures to share with you all.
Let me start off with sharing one of my favorite foods of all time – the Shanghai Hairy Crab (大閘蟹). This Shanghai delicacy is only available during the autumn months, and the celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival is the reminder that the hairy crab season has started.
A lot of people may be put off by the appearance of these little creatures, with its hairy legs and furry claws, but I assure you, they are the crème de la crème of crabs. Some may say that they take too much time and effort to eat, but I beg to differ. The process of dissembling the crab and scooping and scraping every piece of meat from the shells is part of the dining experience that allows you to savor every single bite.
There is no fancy way to make and eat hairy crabs, simplicity is the best way to celebrate them. Just steam them and eat them with black vinegar dipping sauce.
Both the male and female crabs have roe. The male has creamy and yellow roe and the female a richer, firmer and bright orange-red roe. The males are generally larger and have more meat than the females, but the meat of the females are sweeter. Neither is more superior than the other, it’s just a matter of preference which one might prefer. Personally, I like the meatier male for its creamy roe.
It is said that September is the month to eat the female and October for males (I think it is because the females mature earlier than the males). How do you identify the gender of the crab? If you flip them over and look at their belly you will see the males have a V-shaped pleon while the females have a rounded one.
During the month’s the hairy crab is in season, most Shanghainese restaurants in Hong Kong will offer them. If you don’t want stranger’s to see you making a mess while eating, you can opt to buy them from supermarkets or from speciality stores and cook them at home yourself. I usually get mine from Old San Yang (老三陽) in Causeway Bay.
The crabs are always tied up and neatly lined up in rows in a glass-door refrigerator, grouped in sections by weight. The prices of hairy crabs are charged by weight, the heavier the more expensive. The prices also vary by the region the crabs are from, with Yangcheng Lake being the most expensive (need to be careful of being sold knockoff’s, some shops might try to sell you fake Yangcheng Lake crabs!).
Do buy crabs from reputable shops and buy ones that are live, intact and have a shiny sheen to the shell. To check the crabs are alive, you can lightly tap on the shell near their eyes and if their eyes move, they are fresh. Or if they are blowing bubbles from their mouth they are also alive.
If you won’t be cooking the crabs immediately, you can store them in your refrigerator by draping them with a wet paper towel (up to a few days). You also don’t need to worry about having to purchase the vinegar, brown sugar, perilla leaves separately, the shops almost always give you a everything you need.
As the crab is considered an yin food that has a cooling effect on the body, dried perilla leaves (紫蘇葉) and ginger are used to cook the crabs and ginger tea is served at the end of the meal to neutralize the coolness.
The Do’s and Don’ts
- Do clean the hairy crab’s thoroughly with a small brush before cooking
- Do cook the crabs until well done with dried perilla leaves and ginger
- Do drink ginger tea to offset the cooling effects
- Do pair with Chinese yellow wine / Huang Jiu (黄酒)
- Don’t eat crabs that are dead
- Don’t cut the strings before steaming
- Don’t eat the stomach, heart and gills of the crab
- Don’t eat persimmons with crabs
- Don’t eat too many hairy crabs in one go
Tai Wu Lake Hairy Crabs (~6 Taels)
Steamed Hairy Crabs
Shanghai Hairy Crabs
dried perilla leaves (1-2 for each crab)
4-5 pieces of sliced ginger
2-3 tsp brown sugar
1/4 cup Zhenjiang black vinegar
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 small tooth-brush for cleaning
Under running water, thoroughly clean the hairy crabs with a small tooth-brush (do not untie the crabs). Be sure to scrub the furry claws.
Place a steam rack into a wok and fill with water to just below the rack, cover and bring the water to a boil.
Cut a few slices of ginger and place it on a steaming plate with the perilla leaves. Place the crabs belly side up on top of the ginger and perilla leaves and place into the steamer. For crabs weighing less than 6 taels, steam for about 15 minutes. And for crabs weighing over 6 taels steam for 18-20 minutes.
While the crabs are steaming, prepare the dipping sauce by mixing the ginger, brown sugar into the black vinegar until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add more/less ginger and sugar to your preference.
The crabs will turn from a muddy green color to a vibrant orange after steaming. Remove from the steamer and let cool for a few minutes before cutting the ties and serve.
*Tael ~ A Chinese unit of weight, where 1 Tael (兩) = 1/16 Catty (斤) =~ 37 grams