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Crab-happy for heavenly hairy crabs
By Gao Ceng

Taking a real bite of famous Yangcheng Lake hairy crab is an increasingly expensive culinary experience in Shanghai. So city gourmets are finding new ways to keep their dining budget reasonable, while still ensuring the same flavor authenticity - and having some fun going on a trip to the home of the crab at the same time.

"Most hairy crabs produced in Yangcheng Lake are supplied to five-star hotels in Shanghai due to limited production," says Zhang Longgen, a crab farmer in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, whose crab farm is located in the middle of Yangcheng Lake.

Generally, a pair of hairy crabs - one male and one female - served in Shanghai hotels and fine dining restaurants cost around 300 yuan (US$48) or more.

So many Shanghai locals choose to make a trip to Yangcheng Lake and taste the delicacy in a crab house (xie zhuang 蟹庄), a type of eatery run by crab farmers, offering a simple yet authentic dining experience.

Crab houses, concentrated on the lakeside, usually consist of a three-story building built over the water. It includes holding areas where live hairy crabs are transported by farmers from their cages in the center of the lake. Land side, the house may also feature a small garden, planted with vegetables.

Inside the restaurant, there are public and private dining rooms, generally accommodating up to 250 customers. Some have mahjong rooms for entertainment.

On the menu are farmers' dishes (nong jia cai 农家菜), a culinary style popular in the countryside, defined by fresh natural ingredients that are simply cooked.

The menu of each house seems identical, dominated by hairy crabs, river fish, river shrimps, snails and clams, seasonal greens and vegetables and free-range chicken.

Unlike Shanghai restaurants which often pick out the meat and roe to make complicated crab dishes, crab houses at Yangcheng Lake simply steam the crustacean and serve it with vinegar-ginger sauce.

Other river foods are simply boiled and flavored with scallion, stir-fried or braised in sauce.

Compared with luxury hotels and restaurants, those crab houses distinguish themselves through authenticity and competitive prices.

"I sell hairy crabs I've farmed myself, which ensures its quality, freshness and authentic Yangcheng Lake flavor," says Zhang.

The price of a pair of hairy crab is around 100 yuan, much lower than that in Shanghai. According to crab house owners, the price contrast is to a large extent, down to how they run the business.

"My main business is selling crabs to big accounts in Shanghai, dominated by five-star hotels. My crab house is a side business originally opening for entertaining my big accounts. For me, it's more like a place to make friends, not a profit-driven venture," Zhang explains.

Other crab farmers open crab houses to increase profits by cutting out the middleman.

"Originally, I sold my crabs to big merchants for a very low price and in big quantities. They sell them on for a much higher price, which seems unfair to me. That's why I opened a crab house and sell my crabs myself for a reasonable price," says Xiao Lu, a hairy crab farmer and owner of Xiao Lu Lotus Crab House on Lotus Island, in the center of the Yangcheng Lake.

Serving hairy crab is very much a seasonal business. Lu says period between August and December is the crab season. The delicacy at its best for around 50 days, from the middle of October to the end of November, adds Zhang.

"During November, the time when northwest winds blows, the roe of male crab reaches its best," Zhang adds.

For the rest of the year, crab houses sell seasonal river food and crayfish.

Finding a crab house

Choices are aplenty among a large number of crab houses as fierce competition will help ensure good prices and quality. And picking somewhere not too far off the beaten track will minimize travel time.

Yu Jia Deng Huo (渔家灯火), located at the south of Bacheng, a small town of Kunshan City near Yangcheng Lake, and Lotus Island at the center of the lake are two places with more than 100 crab houses.

"The crab houses in Yu Jia Deng Huo are mainly owned by experienced farmers. Locals love going there as they're reassured about quality," explains a Kunshan local.

"In the past, our crab houses were on boats. The government helped us transfer to this new area to avoid Yangcheng Lake being polluted," says Zhang, the crab farmer.

The area, under local government management and planning, is clean and tidy with ample parking and a big map providing directions to each crab house.

Lotus Island has around 1,200 residents, mainly hairy crab farmers. When the crab season comes, the quiet island becomes a bustling center for the trade.

With no public transport, the sole link to the mainland is by boat, helping preserve the local ecology and providing foodies with a distinctive dining environment.

Most crab houses here combine dining with island entertainment, including fishing, boating and vegetable picking.

However, during the hairy crab season, Yu Jia Deng Huo and Lotus Island are often overrun by hairy crab fans seeking out the delicacy.

For those seeking a quieter dining experience, the lesser-known hairy crab market at Shajiabang Town, Changshu City, on the bank of Yangcheng Lake, is recommended.

It offers crabs of the same quality but at a lower price. And after dining on hairy crab, customers can stroll around the beautiful reed mashes nearby.

Xie Sheng Lou

The house, located in Yu Jia Deng Huo, provides tasty and fresh price-friendly fare. And diners can expect warm, friendly service from owner Zhang Longgen. The crabs come in small, medium and large sizes - with prices from 48 yuan to 98 yuan.

Zhang is happy to recommend dishes and is good at pairing food according to the number of diners, budget, the season and nutritional balance. Greens and vegetables are homegrown while all river produce comes from Yangcheng Lake.

In addition to hairy crabs, deep-fried yellow croaker and boiled water caltrop are recommended as appetizers.

These can be followed with braised river snail with chili and boiled river shrimp with scallion. Stir-fried celery with bean curd are also popular.

The simple, aromatic and rich chicken soup is also recommended. And a better way to end the meal is Zhang's homemade pumpkin congee, which is fruity and sweet.

Zhang often prepares small souvenirs for customers, usually some freshly picked native fruit and vegetables, for example, a bunch of tian luo su (田萝粟), a local produce with the sugar cane-like flavor and texture.

Tel: (0512) 5789-8338

Address: No. 105, Yu Jia Deng Huo, Ma'anshan Rd W.

How to get there: Take Huning Expressway and get off at Yangcheng Lake Exit

Average cost: 100 yuan

Xiao Lu Crab House

This crab house on Lotus Island includes a garden for outdoor dining, so diners can sample hairy crabs while taking in the lake view and fresh air.

Owner Xiao Lu (young Lu) arranges various island entertainment for customers free of charge, from fishing and boat trips to picking radishes and sweet potatoes.

The size of the hairy crab ranges from 2 to 4.5 taels. Also on the menu are bai shui yu (white freshwater fish 白水鱼), bian yu (freshwater bream 鳊鱼) and river eel. The large portions are suitable for families.

"I recommend that customers reserve a table and make their order two or three days in advance. All the vegetables are freshly picked, so I need time preparing ingredients," explains Lu.

Tel: 1391-4006-395

Address: No. 30, Lotus Island, Xiangcheng District, Suzhou

How to get there: Take Huning Expressway and transfer to S5 Expressway and get off at Lotus Island Exit

Average cost: 150 yuan

Feng Ze Yuan Crab House

It features a great variety of fresh dishes, including ang ci yu (yellow catfish 昂刺鱼), river shrimp, turtle and ji yu (carp 鲫鱼) are its signature lake food. Qing cai (Chinese cabbage 青菜), mao dou, (green soybean 毛豆), free-range chicken and duck are also recommended. The set menu, including a pair of hairy crabs, is around 150 yuan.

Diners are also invited to see how local fisherman catch crabs and shrimps and experience island entertainment, such as boating and picking caltrop.

Tel: 1381-2782-922

Address: No. 14, Lotus Island, Xiangcheng District, Suzhou

How to get there: Take Huning Expressway and transfer to S5 Expressway and get off at Lotus Island Exit

Average cost: 150 yuan

A two-day trip to Yangcheng Lake

For a weekend trip, we recommend leaving Shanghai on early Saturday morning and returning on late Sunday evening to avoid heavy traffic.

But before that, call the crab house owner to book a table - better a private dining room with a lake view - two days in advance. Crab farmers are unlikely to speak English, so you may need a Chinese-speaking friend.

Tell the owner your preferred food style. The menu at crab houses is comparatively flexible; many popular simple dishes made from seasonal ingredients not on the menu can also be prepared.

If you go to the Lotus Island, tell the crab house owner what island entertainment you want to experience.

For those seeking a high-end experience, Fairmont Yangcheng Lake is strongly recommended.

The five-star hotel nestles on the shore of the lake and many rooms have a breathtaking lake views. The hotel offers bicycle rental.

It's also close to Yu Jia Deng Huo; five minutes by car, 20 minutes if walking.

There are also budget hotels; most are in downtown, far from the crab houses.

Visitors can also stay at some crab farmers' houses, though quality is mixed.

Before going back, don't forget to buy some hairy crabs to take home. Crab farmers pack them carefully for transporting.

Eating tips at a crab house

Some parts of the hairy crab are inedible, including its stomach, heart, lungs and intestines.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, avoid serving hairy crab with food of a cold nature, such as persimmons, watermelon, pearl and chilled drink.

Use a toothpick to pick the meat from a river snail, and remember that the intestine is inedible.

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