I'M going to do us all a favor and skip the small talk about hairy crabs in Shanghai. Anyone who's been here more than a year will know just how highly valued these little bad boys are and how crab-happy Shanghai gets this time of year.
All the little dry good vendors and mom and pop shops along Wulumuqi Road suddenly find a few fish tanks and in the span of a few weeks there are crabs everywhere you look. Some are cheap, others more expensive, size being little indication of their quality. Some will claim Yangcheng heritage though most of us know by now that most of these acclaimed crabs are actually farmed throughout the Yangtze River Delta and only take a few weeks' dip in the lake before being put on the market.
If you are new to Shanghai, just keep your eyes open and your ears to the ground. In very little time you are undoubtedly going to be invited by friends or colleagues to a very fine hairy crab dinner as the ultimate Shanghai experience, either in a restaurant or at someone's home. You should go. It will be a grand and social affair and indeed one of the Shanghai culinary experiences that should not be missed.
The warmed huang jiu (yellow rice wine) will flow freely among friends and there are few better ways to share a great meal than sitting around a table for hours at a time crunching crab, slurping vinegar and talking shop.
Hairy crabs are delicious, there is no doubt about it, but you are really working for your food when you eat a hairy crab.
Already smaller than the American blue crab and far lighter than its Dungeness counterpart on the west coast, most hairy crabs will yield less than a tablespoon of meat and roe when it's all said and done.
For me, a relatively amateur eater, it takes about 20 minutes to break down and consume each hairy crab. Others, like my mom, a single-handed crabbing force of destruction, are closer to 10 minutes per crab.
Truth be told though, I'm a lazy man when I'm out of the kitchen and more often than not I can't be bothered to work that hard for my own dinner. Nor am I inclined to prepare the traditional rice and accompaniments that mark a proper hairy crab affair. I want my crab quick and clean, out of the shell and ready to be consumed in alternating bites of meats and roe.
Personal feelings aside, though, this is also the season where many of us will receive hairy crab as presents from visiting friends or colleagues. First off, be flattered, these little guys can go for over 100 yuan (US$16) a pop and someone is feeling mighty generous when they drop off a box of 20 of them at your door.
Second of all, do not waste your newfound treasure trove! If you're not going to dispose of said crustaceans at home within about three days, do the right things and hand them off to someone who will.
But if you are inclined I have included a recipe that takes full advantage of these incredible creatures and differs a bit from your congee and black vinegar offerings. Be warned, this recipe is extremely time-consuming (most of the main hours spent in cleaning the delicious suckers). Given the amount of prep and the cost of ingredients, this dish is probably best shared with the truly special ones in your life. But if you have the resources, by all means, serve it to all. The world can only be a better place for it.
To start the process, assuming you're serious about this, one has to steam said crabs over medium-high heat for five minutes before letting them cool down in their shells, remaining in the steamer the entire time. After picking all the meat out, separate the roe from the white flesh, this will become the base of your crab butter. Do not throw out the shells either, these are the fixings for your stock, the recipe follows below.
Hairy crab stock
100g diced onions, 50g diced celery, 50g diced fennel, 30g tomato paste, 200ml white wine, Thyme, Peppercorns, Bay leaf, Shells of 4 steamed, cleaned hairy crabs, 1 liter of water
1. Sauté vegetables over medium heat until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
2. Add tomato paste and continue to sauté until mixture becomes darker brown with the aroma of roasted tomatoes, about 5 more minutes.
3. Add crab shells, herbs and spices and white wine and turn the heat to high.
4. When the white wine has nearly evaporated, add all of your water and bring stock to a boil.
5. Turn heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes before straining and setting aside to cool.
Crab roe butter
25g cooked hairy crab roe (identified by the signature orange color and slightly harder and grainy texture), 25g softened butter, Salt and pepper
Finely chop the crab roe until a paste forms, either by hand or in a machine.
Combine with softened butter and season to taste.
Hairy crab spaghetti, serves 2
200g dried spaghetti, 20g sliced shallots, 10g sliced garlic, 10g sliced small red chili pepper, 400ml of hairy crab stock, 50g parmesan cheese, 50g crab roe butter, Picked meat from 4 hairy crabs, Torn basil, Olive oil, Salt and pepper
1. Place spaghetti into a pot of boiling lightly salted water and cook according to directions on the packet.
2. In a wide sauté pan, lightly cook the aromatics over medium heat until soft and tender, about 5 minutes. Add crab stock and cook for another 2 minutes until flavors have melded.
3. Still over medium heat combine resulting sauce with pasta, crab butter, and parmesan, season carefully to taste. Add torn basil, olive oil and crab meat and toss gently to combine, season to taste one more time and plate up.