「秋风起、蟹脚痒」When the autumn winds start to blow, gourmets around Shanghai know that it’s time for hair crabs.
The Crab Banquet 方亮蟹宴
Xinguang Restaurant was the originator of Shanghai’s innovative Fang Liang 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.
We ordered the customary appetisers and waited patiently for our crab banquet to start.
Baby taros and chestnuts 芋艿栗子 did not disappoint. The chestnuts and taros were cooked to a nice texture in the sugar syrup, but the syrup did not overpower the naturally sweetness of the chestnuts at this time of the year. The taros reminded me of the Teochew taro in terms of the consistency.
Poaching the chicken in a brine with aromatics, the 家乡咸鸡 homestyle salted chicken was salty and a bit dry this time we were there. The parts given were not the best, but we were not here for the chicken. Let’s move on.
Steamed Crab Claws 清蒸蟹钳
This has been nicknamed by gourmets from how it was presented 佛手托天 “The Buddha holding the sky”. If you are fan of old black and white Cantonese movies, you would know 如来神掌 “Buddha Palm Skills” and it resembled one of the style in that palm skills.
The chefs and army of aunties have made the work of eating these crab craws go away. Each portion for one person requires around 5 crabs, so 10 craws. What was presented was a wonderful stack of crab claws that were sweet and succulent. 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 disintegrate 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
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. A plate of crab milts and roe sautéed with mung bean noodles glistening with the crab oil, this was a cholesterol bomb.
And because this was after October, the plate had more milt than roe, which explained the sticky feeling. Strange texture aside, each mouthful was full of the umami of the crabs sexual organs, which sounded gross but absolutely heavenly when consumed. It was still a rather generous portion for two person, as one cannot eat more than two or three spoons of this ultra-rich dish.
「九雌十雄」”September Female, October Male”
The hairy crab is famed for its orangey roe (female) and rich milt (male). It’s conventional wisdom to have the female crab before the lunar month of September, and male crab after the lunar month of October (which was when this meal was taken). Male milt is softer and smoother than the female roe, but some like the female roe more because they could not stand the idea of eating milt (which is a nice way to call crab semen).
No matter how one enjoyed the crab banquet, the best way to enjoy these hair crabs was to use your own hands to crack open the crustaceans and deconstructs the parts you have enjoyed previously in reverse order – crab shell, flesh, legs and finally craws.
And promptly after one has finished the crab, the customary ginger tea with brown sugar was consumed to drive away the “coolness” of the crab.
Crab Meat Soup Dumpling 蟹粉小馄饨
And the finale to the crab banquet was Crab Meat Soup Dumpling 蟹粉小馄饨 (called wantons in Shanghai) with a filing of crab meat and pork.
The soup base was chicken and pork stock, and the crab meat filling in 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
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