MANY gourmets agree that steaming hairy crab is the best way to get all the flavors of this seasonal delicacy.
However, for chefs, a dish featuring a simple ingredient and single cooking technique limits their scope for creativity in the kitchen, resulting in a hairy crab menu that looks the same year after year.
Taking the crab to pieces, picking out its meat, roe and oil, and then reconstructing its flavor through mixing these with diverse ingredients has become a way for chefs to show their creative side, and surprise diners.
These days such "reconstructed hairy crab flavors" - known as crab dishes (xie cai ) - dominate the hairy crab menus of many hotel restaurants.
"Designing a quality crab menu is always a challenge," says Sam Yuen, chef de cuisine at Wei Jing Ge of Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund. "Chefs should highlight the seasonal crab flavor but at the same time prevent the diner's palate from being bored, with the flavor repeated in each dish."
"I focus on highlighting the crab flavor but presenting it in diverse ways, from light to rich, dry (stir-fry crab dish) to moist (crab soup)," Yuen explains.
Other chefs agree that hairy crab requires a creative touch.
"I prefer adding a diversity of ingredients and cooking techniques to the menu to avoid that the diner's palate becomes tired," says Cailong Xu, chef de cuisine at Dragon Phoenix of Fairmont Peace Hotel.
According to chef Xu, hairy crab, although best known for its distinctive flavor, makes a versatile pairing with different ingredients.
"No matter whether crab meat or roe, it shows different flavor character when paired with greens, other vegetables and seafood," says Xu.
For example, fish and shrimp help bring out the delicate umami - pleasant savory - flavor from the crab while greens highlight its freshness, Xu explains.
Such twists are considered by many chefs as a way of overcoming natural limitations of the dish. Hairy crab is characterized by an earthy and fishy taste and greasy mouth feel created by the rich roe and oil inside the shell.
"Adding some vinegar and yellow wine during heating helps release its fragrance, removing its earthy and fishy taste and bringing out its natural sweetness," says Xu.
Chef Yuen prefers using mild ingredients - such as eggplant and tofu - which are good at absorbing flavor and oil, to cook with crab butter and roe.
This week, Shanghai Daily gets the claws into some characteristic crab dishes recently launched by five-star hotels in town, featuring premium ingredients and fine culinary techniques.
With Shanghai flavors
Chef Xu's hairy crab menu echoes traditional Shanghai cuisine, in keeping with the concept of the restaurant.
"I follow the local food tradition, pursuing what is rich and seasonal. Hairy crab is interpreted into an in-depth flavor blending savory and umami, together with an intense fragrance," says Xu.
Braised water caltrop with crab roe (168 yuan (US$26)+15%)
This dish features a flavor with layers and good balance, starting from rich crab roe and ending with refreshing water caltrop, which leaves a pleasant aftertaste. Water caltrop is in season from October to November and the greasy crab roe is balanced by the caltrop's, crisp, refreshing sweetness, with just a hint of bitterness. In turn, the crab roe brings out richness and flavor of the water caltrop.
Shanghai-style wok-fried river shrimps and hairy crab (288 yuan+15%, small portion)
"River shrimps live alongside hairy crabs in lakes, resulting in a similarity in flavor and a harmonious combination when stir-fried together," explains Xu.
The distinctive texture of river shrimp, tender yet defined, gives the dish added complexity.
For a finishing touch, vinegar is added, not overpowering the ingredients, but removing the earthy and fishy taste of the shrimp and crab and bringing out their natural sweetness.
Venue: Dragon Phoenix, Fairmont Peace Hotel
Address: 8/F, 20 Nanjing Rd E.
The crab menu by chef Yuen features the creative use of ingredients within the tradition of Huaiyang cuisine from Jiangsu Province, represented by fine cutting and complex flavors through ingredients pairing.
This year, Yuen has added a health-conscious element to his menu - adding perilla, a kind of mint without flavor but which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, dispels cold. Hairy crab is considered a cold food.
Sauteed turtle with hairy crab meat (188 yuan+15%)
The rim of the turtle shell - which has a distinctive, collagen-like texture, silky crab roe, crab meat and starchy taro are stir-fried together, creating rich textures and a balanced flavor. The taro absorbs the crab roe flavor, its natural sweetness going well with the sweet crab meat.
According to Yuen, the turtle shell rim provides gentle nourishment for the body, ideal in autumn.
Stewed minced pork balls with crab roe (58 yuan+15%)
Chef's fine cutting skills ensure the crab roe and juices mix with pork, giving each bite a bouncy and juicy texture. Flavors and juices permeate each other, creating complexity in taste, starting from hint of fattiness and ending with a rich umami flavor.
The resulting soup is rich but not greasy.
Venue: Wei Jing Ge, Waldorf Astoria Shanghai on the Bund
Address: 5/F, 2 Zhongshan Rd E1
Tel: 6322-9988 ext 3115
From an old recipe
Wang Bao He, an old Chinese restaurant founded 250 years ago and now developing itself as a hotel, is known for its crab banquet (xie yan 蟹宴) with more than 100 crab dishes - many of which are based on the old recipes used exclusively in ancient royal courts - featuring complex culinary crafts and using yellow wine and chrysanthemum to highlight the crab flavor.
Drunken hairy crab (price not disclosed)
Hairy crab and Chinese wine complement each other, creating an appealing fragrance and layers of flavor.
Female hairy crab with firm orange crab butter is marinated in Huadiao, a kind of yellow wine made from glutinous rice, known for its mellow sweetness and smooth mouth feel, and gao liang, a kind of Chinese distilled liquor made from sorghum, featuring an intense fragrance and clean mouth feel together with a burning sensation.
Huadiao brings out the sweetness of the crab, while gao liang removes its fishy and earthy notes.
Chefs season the crab with orange peel, sugar and ginger, imbuing the crustacean with a savory taste and hint of fruit.
This dish is the restaurant's signature appetizer for the hairy crab feast.
Hairy crab with tangerine (price not disclosed)
The recipe can be traced back to the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), when a Song emperor presented this dish to his queen as a token of his love.
The tangerine is hollowed, filled with the stir-fried crab roe and juice and finally topped with drops of lemon juice. Chefs steam this with yellow wine and chrysanthemum.
When served, diners get a unique aroma, mixing citrus and flower. The crab roe, absorbing the flavor from the lemon, becomes delicate and elegant.
The price of those two dishes may change according to the season. Customers can make a telephone call, asking for the price details.
Venue: Bao He Hall, Grand Central Hotel
Address: 5/F, 555 Jiujiang Rd
Tel: 5396-0000 ext 80826
Tse Yuk Lung, Chinese executive chef at Sheraton Shanghai Hongkou Hotel, has launched his Cantonese characteristic hairy crab menu, pursuing and highlighting original crab flavor with a fresh greens.
Although Guangdong Province doesn't produce hairy crab, Cantonese cuisine provides a good fit for water crab, as it's renowned for flavor-filled freshwater fish and seafood, explains Tse.
In this Cantonese twist, vinegar - popularly used in cooking hairy crab - is replaced by mild fish sauce. Tse believes that vinegar flavor is too strong, overpowering the natural crab flavor.
Tse, pairs each crab dish with different greens, explaining that it's not just for brightening up the presentation but also adding refreshing flavor, used to balance the greasy crab roe.
Steamed tofu with crab meat (88 yuan)
The tofu is homemade, based on chef's own recipe, featuring a texture with firm skin and silky inside. Plenty of crab roe and juice give the mild tofu rich intense flavors, while not overpowering its natural taste and aroma.
Crab meat and cod fish dumpling (268 yuan)
The pan-fried dumpling made from crab and fish is crispy outside and tender inside. Intense crab flavor brings out the savory taste of the cod, which gives each bite a complex flavor mixing umami, natural sweet and savory.
Chef pairs the dish with asparagus to give the palate a refreshing finish.
Venue: YUE, Sheraton Shanghai Hongkou Hotel
Address: 4/F, 59 Siping Rd
Tel: 2601-0088 ext 6710
Meeting with yellow wine
The relation is akin to a Chinese take on steak and wine - the tastes complementing each other. And according to traditional Chinese medicine, the warm yellow wine balances the cold of the hairy crab.
This year, Grand Hyatt Shanghai highlights the role of yellow wine plays in hairy crab dining.
"Yellow wine distinguishes itself by its blending of six different flavors - sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, tart and savory - which echoes the taste of hairy crab; mild but with good complexity," explains Peter Zhou, food and beverage director of Grand Hyatt Shanghai. "Yellow wine, with its warm nature in traditional Chinese medicine balances the crab."
The hotel has sourced two kinds of quality yellow wine from Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province, which tastes sweet, mellow and smooth, with 10 and 20 years' aging.
"We put much focus on the wine serving details, controlling the serving temperature at 38 or 40 degrees Celsius, which ensures it fully releasing the aroma and keeping a smooth mouth feel," Zhou added.
Yellow wine, in addition to being used as a pairing for steamed hairy crab, is also added to crab dishes as a key seasoning.
Wok-fried diced shrimp, chicken, crab roe and meat (168 yuan+15%) features five-year-old yellow wine, which removes the fishy taste of the crab and highlights its umami flavor.