I meet hairy crabs in eatery where Bill Clinton struggled
By Emily Ford
IT'S Wednesday afternoon. I'm in the office when Jing, a friend who works at a local company, calls with an exciting lunch invitation.
"Hairy crab season is here! Would you like to come and eat crabs?" she says.
Hairy crabs are the crustacean superstars of Shanghai cuisine, making a once-a-year appearance in October and November alongside menu stalwarts such as soupy dumplings and drunken chicken. Since arriving in February, I have heard about hairy crabs at least once a week. It is not uncommon to see taxi drivers' eyes mist over when they talk about them. For several months I have been secretly hoping someone will invite me to eat crabs with them.
"I'd love to come!" I say. "Thanks for asking!"
Before I go, I talk to my Shanghainese friends Kenny and Lulu in preparation. There is a complex art to eating crabs, I discover. "You eat the roe first, and the claws last," Kenny says. "Under no circumstances eat the heart," Lulu says sternly.
"Under no circumstances eat the heart," I repeat nervously.
Male or female?
Hairy crabs taste different depending on their gender, I learn. Females, while no less hairy, come into season first and contain more delicious eggs. However, male crabs are meatier. Any discussion of hairy crabs among locals inevitably leads to a fierce debate about which sex tastes better.
"Men crabs are bigger, but they are not as sweet as women," Lulu says.
"But the men are more tender," Kenny argues. "They just take longer to mature."
My friend Jing's company has booked a famous hairy crab restaurant in Shanghai's temple gardens. A waitress leads me to a dining room, which has a sign saying "1998."
"Bill Clinton came here in 1998 so we named the room after him," the waitress beams. It is clear that the president's visit left a great impression. Large portraits of a grinning Bill bear down from every wall. There is a picture of Bill eating crabs, Bill shaking hands with the chef, Bill with his wife Hillary, Bill smiling at a waitress.
"I bet Bill prefers female crabs," I think.
An array of bibs, gloves and ominous-looking metal implements are spread out on the table. It looks like someone is about to perform surgery. Several orange crabs sit in a bowl of dark liquid, awaiting their fate. I begin to feel inexplicably nervous.
"They were alive when I got here. Not any more," Jing smiles.
Fortunately, the waitress dissects my crab for me. She deftly scrapes out its insides with the metal tools, then rearranges the carcass so it looks like a crab again. It gazes up at me accusingly with its round black eyes, hairy arms dangling by its sides.
Even when shelled, crabs are not straightforward. Food in China is divided into "hot" and "cold" categories, which if combined incorrectly can cause all kinds of nasty ailments. The rules are confusing. Crabs are one of the coolest things you can eat. Intriguingly, women are also cool.
"You need to add more ginger. And drink wine," the waitress tells me. After the crabs are taken away, I breathe a sigh of relief. "That didn't go too badly," I think.
Then the waitress brings out dessert, a kind of sticky rice sweet. Suddenly, she turns the plate upside down, only for the sweet to remain firmly stuck.
"Bill tried with three pairs of chopsticks and he still couldn't pick it up," she says gleefully. "You try!" All eyes turn to me, the lone foreigner and undoubtedly the least dextrous with chopsticks.
I try several times to pick up the sweet, with no success. I look up at Bill for help. He smiles down at me with a cheesy grin. I rack my brains for a distraction technique. "Do you prefer male or female crabs?" I ask the waitress in desperation.