Autumn is here once more, and the autumn winds have started blowing across the lakes of Jiangsu. The hairy crabs beckon.
Hairy crab capital of the world
Every autumn, a great number of local visitors drive to Kunshan for the delicious Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs. Because of this, Bacheng 巴城, located northwest of Kunshan and close to Yangcheng Lake, attracts many crab seekers. Coming to the town, you will be surprised by the great number of restaurants cooking crab. There are four main districts to buy crab in Bacheng. The traditional crab market is located on Hubin Road, with some 100 boats selling crab. Nearby, restaurants located on Bajie Road 巴解路also attract a number of visitors because of their reasonable prices.
Although it’s known as an autumn delicacy, the hairy crab – or mitten crab as it’s also known because of its hirsute claws – is available all year round. Diners only get excited about them in early autumn, when they start to spawn and become filled to bursting with roe. Most crabs are raised in netted-off areas for two years before harvest. The quality differs depending on how stringent farmers are about the feed and the environment.
The little crustaceans are, in general, quite small, which makes it time consuming to get to their sweet, silky flesh. But hairy crab enthusiasts don’t care. They’ll spend hours around the table with friends, sucking meat from each tiny leg, sipping warm Chinese brandy (huángjiǔ, 黄酒), and in general reveling in this autumn speciality.
City citizens (and gourmands around Asia) eagerly wait for that ninth and tenth month of the lunar year – generally between late September and early November – when the crabs are at their fattest and most delectable. Also prized is the bright orange roe inside the males and females, which is gorgeously rich – reminiscent of sea urchin or foie gras.
Judge the crab by looking at it. Its eyes must be alert; its shell must be green and the underside should be white with no unpleasant smell. Most importantly, all its claws should be intact.
We had a series of simple starters, the most memorable among those are highlighted below.
三黄鸡 free range chicken
醉鸡 drunken crab
Before the steamed crab, we were treated to the drunken crab. Cooked crabs are marinated in yellow wine and the crab was fully imbibed with the complex flavour of the wine. The roe was soft because of the treatment in the sweet liquor. Overall, a very fun way to eat the crab and enjoy the wine taste.
热菜 Main Courses
青壳螺丝 periwinkle in wine sauce
The periwinkles are used as food for the hairy crabs and are raised the same pristine water of the lake. Hence, they are plumped and a great 下酒菜 drink snacks.
盐水河虾 brined river shrimps
韭菜有机鸡蛋 organic omelette with chives
This is the best omelette I have tasted in recent times. Eggs these days are from industrialised chicken farms where hens are forced feed to produce an obscene number of eggs. These eggs are almost tasteless. However this omelette used organic eggs from Jiang’s own farm laid by free ranging hens. The result was really tasty eggs that have the right colours, texture and that satisfying eggy flavour.
红烧大鳊鱼 river bream in thick sauce
春鲶夏鲤四季鳊 The white bream is an all season fish available commonly around China. Good brown sauce for the river fish, the bland white bream needed to borrow tastes from the sauce.
酱烧河鳗 river eel in red sauce
I love to eat eels and Huaiyang cuisine is really good at cooking this fish. These are river eels from local waters and are quite big. Without looking carefully, one may mistaken them for snakes.
红烧羊肉煲 stew mutton casserole
It’s autumn and mutton casserole is in order. I loved the red sauce that was used to stew the mutton. Plus the mutton was slightly gamey, so it added a lot of flavour and complexity to the casserole. Love this.
蚌肉豆腐 mussels with tofu
I would try to do this dish some time. Tofu cooked in chicken stock with sliced shiitake mushrooms and mussels. The mussels provided all the umami in the dish.
鸡头米炒菱角 gorgon fruit with water caltrop
Gorgon fruit 芡实 is not a fruit but the seeds from the prickly water lily. The gorgon fruit is said to tonify spleen and kidney. The fresh version is also known as 鸡头米 and is a seasonal staple for autumn in Suzhou. So this dish was made up of two important seasonal ingredients, the fresh gorgon fruit and water caltrop 菱角 (also known as water chestnut, but not to be confused with Chinese water chestnut 马蹄, which is referred to as 荸荠 in China). The water caltrop provided the crunch and sweetness, the gorgon fruit introduced the starch and sticky consistency.
清炒水芹菜 stir-fry water celery
I thought it was kangkong, but it’s not. Crunchier than kang kong and has a strong taste like celery.
馄饨汤 Shanghai wanton soup
And for the filler, we were treated to handmade wantons the size of ping pong balls.
Piece de Resistance
Previously I blogged about the elusive 550/600g and above crab. Finally I got to taste these crabs that have lived to full maturity. In terms of size, they were also twice as big as what they normally served in the restaurant.
As the rule of thumb goes, 九雌十雄, the female spawn in the 9th month and the male fertilises them in the 10th month. It was currently bordering between the 9th and 10th lunar month, it was a toss up on whether to eat the male or the female. So I had a pair.
The best way to experience hairy crabs should be a simple basket of hairy crabs, bound in twine (so the legs don’t fall off when cooked) and steamed with ginger until the carapace turns russet red. There is something immensely satisfying about cracking open the shell and dipping each bit of meat into the accompanying ginger-infused vinegar. The process demands patience.
As with many Chinese dishes (chicken feet, lambs neck, etc), consumption is as much about the experience as it is actually getting full. Because of the large size, the crab was easier to consume because it was fleshier. But the main difference was in the roe and paste in the crabs, they were more intense in flavour and fats because of the full extent of growth. Well worth the RMB240 for the pair.
And to accompany the crabs, don’t forget to pair it with that Chinese yellow wine. According to traditional Chinese medicine, crab meat is dangerously cooling, so you need to eat lots of ginger and drink lots of warm wine to stay internally balanced.
They are opened only for the crab season, so call ahead to see if crabs are still available.
At the water edge 在水一方
Tel : 0512-57659138
Date Visited : Oct 2019
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