It’s late autumn and time for the annual hairy crab dinners. And this time I came to this specialist restaurant in Shanghai that has been on my to-eat list for a long time.
Xinguang Restaurant 新光酒家 is located in a street that is parallel to the Nanjing Pedestrian Street. From the exterior, one would not expect this to be one of the best place to have the seasonal delicacy. Even the tableware used has seen better days, and yet the price is not exactly friendly. In a megalopolis like Shanghai, where wealth and refinement come together, classic restaurants like these often require a refresh.
Then the dinner started and immediately I understood why this is the stalwart of hairy crab banquet in Shanghai.
These are not included in the hairy crab banquet, but everyone order these anyway.
Drunken Crabs 绍兴醉蟹
Because of the hepatitis scare in the 90s, Shanghai stopped serving these raw marinated seafood and shellfish except for some shop like Xinguang who insisted on retaining it on their menu. That’s because they are so proud of their process of marinating the crab, they are sure they would not have any issue with hygiene and contamination. And the drunken crabs were really delicious. The crabs were marinated in Shaoxing wine and the lovely sweet sherry-like wine had penetrated every crevice in the small male crabs.
Chinese coriander with smoked bean curd 香菜拌香干
This may seem simple, but to get it as fragrant as they do, it requires lots of experience. Most are overpowering in sesame, they have got the proportion all perfect.
Salted chicken homestyle 家乡咸鸡
Poaching the chicken in a brine with aromatics, the salted chicken was flavourful and still a bit rare. But what matter most was that it was tender and moist, and not overpowered by the brine.
The Crab Banquet 方亮蟹宴
Xinguang Restaurant was the originator of Shanghai’s innovative crab feast 方亮蟹宴, and now it bears the name of the founder Mr Fang Liang. We started with what Mr Fang called the “Four Dharmas” 四大金刚 of the banquet – the four main highlights of the meal. The taste of the four courses ranges from light to heavy, and the texture changes from firm to intense.
Steamed Crab Claws 清蒸蟹钳
Each portion per person was made up around 10 crabs. But the chefs and army of aunties have made the work of eating these crab craws go away. What was presented was the end result – wonderful stacked crab claws, sweet and succulent. This has been nicknamed 佛手托天 “The Buddha holding the sky” by gourmets from how it was presented.
The taste was light, you can taste the sweetness of the crabs with each craw; the texture of the meat was firm that confirmed the freshness. What was surprising was the middle soft bone that hold the flesh of the craw together was also removed through a secret technique. The craw remained in shape and did not disintegrated as it often would when we do it at home. The waitress secretly told us it involved quickly cooling down the crab after steaming to dislodge that piece of bone.
Crab Legs with Asparagus 芦笋蟹柳
After tasting the firmness of the craw, you now savour the tenderness of the crab legs. This course has been nicknamed “Green and Black Jades” 翡翠墨玉, after the two most sought after types of jade from Qaraqash and Khotan in the Uyghur Province as the two distinctly coloured ingredients danced around each other.
The taste was very delicate, with the crisp freshness of the asparagus and the sweetness from the crab legs. The crab legs were slight more intense, but more tender like a piece of tofu. Lightly sautéed together, it was meant to be the palate cleanser before what were to come.
Stir-Fry Whole Crab Meat 清炒蟹粉
Nicknamed the “Unveiling of the General” 将军显身, the crab banquet proceeded to the a more robust flavour profile with totally different textures. Just like a battle weary general removing his armour, the crab meat together with the roe and fats was removed and sautéed together.
The glistening bright yellow came from crab oil extracted from smaller crabs that did not make the grade from the owners’ own crab farm in Yangcheng Lake. The bright orange oil was added to the sautéed process to give the finishing glisten. The meat was removed from the belly of the crab and combined with the roes and fats from the shell. The colder the autumn, the fatter the crabs. So the connoisseur knew if it was a good year, and this was a good year.
Crab Roe with Mung Bean Noodles 蟹膏银皮
Next came the piece de resistance of the “Four Dharmas” – “The Dragon Across the Galaxy” 银河龙液. The rich and creamy roe sautéed with the precious crab oil was mixed with mung bean noodles. The translucent noodles basically had no taste of their own and provided the conduit to partake the richness of the roe and oil.
The noodles sticky and slippery texture was perfect for the crab roe sauce. Every strand of the noodle was coated with the goodness. It was easy to get this course totally wrong by making it too oily so that the noodles would not stick together. But the technique has been perfected here so you get good separation with the oil. The umami satisfied the soul with every mouthful, and the intense texture of the chewy, sticky noodles was perfect for the equally intense roe.
Steamed Yangcheng Lake Crab (Male, 450g) 清蒸阳澄湖大闸蟹
The Shanghainese know their hairy crabs and have perfected the techniques of eating these crustaceans, working through every bit of nooks and crannies for that elusive piece of flesh. They find the process therapeutic and look forward to this annually.
Hence, even in a crab banquet when everything has been prepared for you, the ultimate enjoyment is still working through the crab by yourself. As the saying goes, “Female in September (by the lunar calendar), male in October”, we were having the male crab this evening. It was a commercial good size of 450g, well proportioned after all those crab. And promptly after one has finished the crab, the customary ginger tea with brown sugar was presented to drive away the “coolness” of the crab.
Steamed Noodles with Crab Meat 蟹粉拌面
After the highlights of the crab banquet, one did not stop. Unlike other places I have tried, Xinguang had left all the condiments alone and let the crab meat and crab oil did their own thing. I found the noodles to be bland in the first mouthful, and then I came to appreciate the intention of the chefs. As I chewed, the umami from the crab oil filled my mouth, and the noodles became secondary. Yet when I thought it was too intense, the noodles helped to bring back the balance. I could have asked for a second helping but I was too full at this point of the banquet.
Crab Meat Soup Dumpling 蟹粉小馄饨
And the finale to the crab banquet was small dumplings (called wantons in Shanghai) with a filing of crab meat and pork. The soup base was chicken and pork stock, and the wantons provided the umami. It was a perfect (and warm) ending to a marvellous dinner!
The Restaurant, The Legend
Mrs Fang helmed this shop in Huangpu, while Mr Fang ran the newer branch in Hongqiao. In September and October (lunar months) each year, diners from all over the world rush to Shanghai. Many of them are gluttons from Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan, as well as overseas Chinese. Mrs Fang happily recollected the number of Singaporeans and Malaysians that came to her shop before the pandemic.
The waitresses and chefs have worked here for a long time, the oldest has worked here for over 25 years. They joked that if they had each bought an apartment in Shanghai when they first came over from Anhui, Jiangsu and other places, they would all become millionaires. Instead they had served a multitude of millionaires and luminaries that came through these humble doors.
Note that Mrs Fang is already over 70 years old (but didn’t look a day older than 60) and promptly closed the shop at 9.30pm, so if you came after 8.30pm, be prepared to be rushed through the meal. And there’s no franchise, so be sure not be cheated by wannabes that have popped up everywhere.
Xinguang Restaurant 新光酒家方亮蟹宴(黄浦店)
中国 上海市 黄浦区天津路512号
Tel : +86 21 63223978
Date Visited : Dec 2020