Hairy Crab, aka Chinese mitten crab (Chinese: 中华绒鳌蟹) and Shanghai hairy crab (Chinese: 上海毛蟹) is a medium-sized burrowing crab that is named for its furry claws which resemble mittens. Historically, the fisherman of Suzhou and Kunshan will set up bamboo crab traps and used a light source to attract the nocturnal crustaceans towards them. They were attracted by the bright lights and climbed onto these traps called 竹閘, hence they were referred as 大閘蟹.
It used to be one has to go to the market and picked the crabs from baskets of live crabs. These days, one just need to call the crab farmers or buy them from apps and have them delivered straight to their homes. The original crabs that made the grade were from Lake Yangcheng. The bottom of the lake was laid with pebbles and the water was clear and filled with water plants. As the crabs spawned and the fries grew up in the environment, they polished their bottom shell along the pebble while the water plants provided plenty of cover from predators. Because of these pristine and privileged surroundings, the Yangcheng hairy crabs are known to be of the best quality.
But as demand grew and supply dwindled from water pollution and over fishing, the quality of these crabs fell to an all time low. And then there was the incident when an excessive amount of antibiotics was found in the stock. That sent a shockwave across the market and gave their poor neighbours, the Taihu crabs, an opportunity to shine.
These days, it is almost impossible to differentiate between the crabs from Yangcheng or Taihu. Most of the crab fries were bred in hatcheries and may spent their childhood in Lake Taihu. Then they migrated to Lake Yangcheng towards the last “stage” of their short lives before they are harvest for the dining tables. These “migration” has totally mixed up the marketplace, but purists still think the Yangcheng version to be sweeter and creamier than the Taihu cousins. Frankly, I find the Taihu ones tastier.
While it is very rare to find crabs bigger than 450g in the restaurants, they are available and are sought after by connoisseurs. And the price goes exponential as the grades jump from 350g to 600g in 50g increments. The pair of 350/400g female and male crabs may fetch RMB 70 at the peak of the season but the price will jump to RMB 140 at 400/450g category and RMB 240 at 500/550g. These were 2018 prices. And for 550/600g and above, once can only dream for these as these crabs were allowed to live a “ripe, old age” to full maturity and managed to survive more than one season.
This crab is an autumn delicacy in Shanghai cuisine and eastern China. It is prized for the female crab roe, which ripen in the ninth lunar month and the males in the tenth. As the autumn wind starts to blow after the mid-autumn (15th day of 8th lunar month), the crabs start to fatten itself for the annual winter seasons as well as produce roes for mating.
For the male, it is basically the semen and organs the sac. The natural start of the crab paste 蟹膏 is blue-white translucent jelly; after steaming, it is translucent and a bit greasy and sticky. The crab paste is rich in protein, fat, phospholipids, vitamins and other nutrients, especially when the season is right and the crab is with the highest fat content, typically 10th lunar month.
For the female, it is mainly the ovary and egg cells of the crab. The orange-red one which is harder and grainier is the roe, while the yellow soft one is the pancreas. After steaming, the roe 蟹黃 tastes like chicken egg yolk, except that it is much more satisfying with high level of umami. It is rich in trace elements such as collagen, calcium and phosphorus, and many essential fatty acids beneficial to health, such as linoleic acid. However it also contain a lot of cholesterol.
The crab meat is believed by the Chinese to have a “cooling” (yin) effect on the body, therefore it’s customary to sip on a cup of hot ginger tea after eating hairy crabs.
And for those we are too lazy to work through the crabs, there’s DiaJi at DingXi Lu in Shanghai Changning district. They provide soup dumplings and xiaolongbao that are filled with the wholesome goodness of these hairy crabs, and at the peak of the seasons, they would also be filled with plenty of roe.
While the best in Shanghai would be WangBaoHe, DiaJi would be the economic example in this increasingly expensive town.
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