MANY people living in Shanghai bemoan the advent of cooler temperatures and shorter days. True gourmets, however, see a silver lining to the increasingly dismal weather of autumn - the seasonal appearance of hairy crabs.
Few foods illicit such glee among lovers of Chinese delicacies as does this rather nasty and ugly-looking crab. Despite being quite troublesome to properly dissect and eat, hairy crabs are one of China's most beloved gourmet delights.
From pest to delicacy
Historical documents first mention the eating of hairy crabs during the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-770 BC). Native to the coastal estuaries of eastern China, the consumption of hairy crabs may well be even more ancient. One of my favorite Chinese poets, the wine-loving Li Bai who lived during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), wrote of the sublime pleasures of experiencing the crabs with good wines. But this was not always the case.
Legend has it that the early settlers of the areas surrounding the Yangtze River Delta loathed the crabs that infested their lands after autumn floods, eating crops and terrorizing the local population with their fiendishly long claws and pincers. They killed the crabs in any way they could but it was often a hopeless cause as the sheer numbers of crabs often overwhelmed them.
One day a farmer named Ba Jie threw some crabs into boiling water to kill them and he was soon seduced by the aromas emanating from the pot. As he took the cooked crabs from the pot and started breaking them apart, the tempting aromas overwhelmed him and he took a first bite. As the story goes, the rest is history.
Over the years I've written on the pleasures pairing different wines with hairy crab, known in the west as the mitten crab. From acidic Sauvignon Blanc and Albarino white wines to classic Chinese yellow wines like Shaoxing, hairy crabs have many good partners. But if you really pushed me to give you the singularly most perfect wine partner for hairy crabs I would have but one answer, Sherry.
Sherry is one of the world's greatest and most inimitable wines. From the historic city of Jerez with a three-millennium history, Sherry is one of the two most difficult to make and distinctive wine styles in the world.
The first stage of making Sherries is the same as making white wines, but when the special Solera aging process begins, the wines take on their unique qualities. Pale Sherries like Manzanilla and Fino undergo the entire aging process protected by a natural occurring yeast called flor that protects the wine from the oxygen, while darker Sherries like Oloroso have higher amounts of alcohol added that kills the protective flor and the wines undergo oxidative aging. All Sherries must be aged three years in stacked rows of American oak casks that are stored in Cathedral-like buildings with ample aeration.
But what makes Sherry the ultimate wine for hairy crabs? Acidic white wines can be very good with hairy crabs as their acidity and freshness bring out the best qualities of the crab meat, but you have to compromise on the use of vinegar since more acidic versions of vinegar clash with the wines. Shaoxing has history on its side as it's traditionally been the favored wine to pair with hairy crabs and, unlike white wines, it is not compromised by the vinegar.
But the simple truth is that even the top old Shaoxing wines that I've been fortunate to taste can't compete with better-quality Sherries in terms of complexity, persistence and intensity. At best, Shaoxing wine is a neutral partner to hairy crab, while the correct Sherry is an embellisher.
One of the beauties of Sherry is the diversity of styles, from bone dry to extremely sweet. The best Sherries to match with hairy crabs are the more delicate dry styles, namely Manzanilla, Fino or Amontillado.