Hairy crabs are the hallowed autumn delicacy in eastern China, but eating the small crustaceans is a hairy, messy business involving cracking, prying, scraping, picking, sucking and crunching. Intrepid Shanghai Daily copy editors visit the Crab Fairy Mansion (Xie Xian Lou 蟹仙楼) and get cracking.
To my shame, I had lived in Shanghai for nearly 18 months and had not tried the famous hairy crab. This was akin to living in Texas and never trying Tex-Mex or moving to Chicago and ignoring deep-dish pizza. I wondered when someone was going to ask me, “What’s the matter? You don’t like our food?”
In fact, I do like crustaceans, having spent most of my life next to the Atlantic Ocean in Florida. Salt-water stone crab claws with a mustard-mayonnaise sauce are a seasonal delicacy there.
But I’d heard that freshwater hairy crab was difficult to eat, and I just figured I’d get around to it one day when I had a local expert to guide me. Yet, as I carried my shopping basket along Wulumuqi Road, it’d seem like everyone was buying or selling hairy crabs during the fall and I’d feel a bit left out.
So I jumped at an invitation to go to Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu Province with two of the newspaper’s other expat staffers and other Chinese editors, writers and a photographer to try some of the famous hairy crab.
The Xie Xian Lou facility, partially built on stilts out over the lake, was very inviting, with its nice restaurant and an area with large plastic bins submerged in large slots in the concrete floor. Nearby were a group of very short stools, thick twine and scissors.
About a half-dozen men gathered in the area turned out to be, for lack of a better description, crab wranglers. Once a big bin was hoisted from the water, with the crabs inside scraping and scrambling like mad, a few of the crustaceans would be netted and plopped down on the concrete.
The wranglers quickly scooped up the crabs and gently folded their legs and claws into the body. They took a piece of twine, holding one end in their mouths, and trussed up the crabs in a matter of seconds, producing a nice little package that looked ready to put under a Christmas tree.
I was “volunteered” to truss a crab, which didn’t appear to be so hard. After all, I’d once grabbed lobsters out of their hiding holes on the sea floor while scuba diving.
But hairy crabs, which seem rather tame trussed up and stacked for sale on the street in Shanghai, take on a different guise when you’re sitting on a tiny stool and facing one eye to beady eyes, with its claws extended and legs ready to dash off sideways.
Cautioned to not get pinched, I picked one up rather gingerly and, with some difficulty, folded up the legs and then the claws. The trick was to keep all those hairy extremities folded up with one hand, and take the twine with the other and wrap it around all of them without a single leg left free.
OK, I wasn’t so good at it. The crab wranglers gave a friendly little chuckle, born undoubtedly of having seen countless city slickers attempt the feat, and helped me finally truss my crab up so it couldn’t scrabble away with a leg or two free.
After that, we made trips in a little dory boat in pairs out through a lotus-shaded area of the lake. The boatman who rowed us with an oar at the back of the boat also picked a few lotus seed heads so we could enjoy some fresh, mild lotus seeds.
Back at the restaurant, we were seated around a large table and served a delicious array of local dishes. Once a platter of red, steamed hairy crabs arrived, though, it was time to set the other food aside. I got a she-crab and a he-crab and after untrussing the creatures, stared at them like someone had given me two little aliens to eat.
I twisted and broke off the legs and claws to deal with later.
Fortunately, my Chinese colleagues came to my rescue with instructions on removing the top shell and taking out the heart, intestines, stomach and gills. So, no unfortunate surprises.
I probably would have discarded the tangerine-colored goop under that, but was told that the roe is the best part so did not commit an unforgivable hairy crab faux pas.
Indeed, the roe was rich, succulent and buttery, with a slightly aquatic taste. There was only about a small spoonful.
After that, I broke the crab into four pieces and sucked and scooped out small pieces of meat. Had I thought about it, the thin tips of one of the legs would have made an excellent little lance to dig out the crab meat. As it was, my fingers were too big to be used with precision and sucking out the meat was a somewhat laborious process.
When I turned my attention to the legs, I felt as if I were in somewhat more familiar territory. While they weren’t the large appendages of Alaskan king crab, they were easier to crack into.
I split the legs longways, which made it easier to lift out a whole piece of the excellent crabmeat. Sorry, folks, I liked that part better than the roe, perhaps because of familiarity.
Here again, had I realized it, the thin leg tips would have made excellent instruments to push the crab meat out of the legs, and would have made the experience more fruitful.
I was so engrossed in the surgical process of deconstructing and eating the crabs that I didn’t realize I was the last one to finish. Someone said I was “so delicate” in my approach, but I couldn’t tell if that was a compliment or a lighthearted jab.
My fingers and face were covered in crabby goodness. I could have used a shower, but the large, pre-moistened towelette provided was adequate.
Would I eat hairy crabs again? Yes, definitely. Would I be much better at it next time? Oh, yeah, without a doubt.
In the meantime, though, I felt like I had passed the hairy crab test and become a little bit more in tune with my new home.
I am a man of few tastes, and, regrettably, hairy crab is not among them. I prefer my crabs hair-less ... and spiced up to good measure as well!
So making the trip to Yangcheng Lake — famed home of the freshwater crabs — took some effort. But, in the end, the ecological beauty and the natural aquatic life of the lake made the over-an-hour trip near Suzhou worth it.
I convinced myself that digging deep into the waters would help me unravel the mystery behind the enormous popularity of this species that is considered a delicacy in China but derided as pests elsewhere. Remember the recent brouhaha over the German-bred hairy crabs?
The immensely popular crustaceans hit the markets around the time when the mid-autumn moon is at its finest. You wonder if there is a concomitance there? All roads — from Shanghai to neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces — lead to the lake like an unstated act of pilgrimage.
The first sighting of the crabs is in the colored cages. Hairy they definitely are, its golden claws holding it up against the cage ribs. Close by, men huddle together, picking up the crabs from the cages and neatly tying them up.
As the horde of cameras click away, you learn that tying up the crabs itself is a work of art that the locals have mastered over the years.
The next stop is the line of restaurants that welcome visitors who solely make the trip to the lake with the single-minded devotion of relishing the delicacy.
At the table, the famous crabs are almost the last to arrive. I would have preferred it first and done away with it but patience is a virtue you learn here.
Most of the dishes served on the table are local vegetation and products from the lake.
When it does arrive, you are already on a high. Piece by piece they are dismantled and devoured like the fabled hungry caterpillar. Steaming hot, you watch as the shells are ripped off first and then pretty much everything else as though it was some Roman-era wrestling match.
The veterans in the business know their game well as they eye the bunch of amateurs and newcomers among us. After some hard tackling you get to the meat and eventually to its most prized asset — the juicy and tender bright orange roe.
A dash of vinegar thrills the senses and a general expression of wonder, amazement and pleasure greets the table. Suddenly, the long trip to the lake is worth it.
Everyone has their own preference in the way they would like to have their crabs — steamed, boiled, preserved in wine or coated with flour. Usually the Yangcheng Lake crabs are steamed or boiled. Keep it simple seems to be the motto to enjoy the refined pleasure. So I could understand why, when I asked for some chilies, it raised a few eyebrows.
I tried to explain that a bit of spice could do no harm but it didn’t win the general approval I was hoping.
The puritans were not willing to accept anything of the sort and even hinted it bordered on the sacrilegious. In short, my small effort to spice things up on the table was met with a general round of disapproval.
Like with many of us out on a first date, it takes a while to decipher the nuances of hairy crab. Besides, it is quite a task — literally — before you really get to enjoy the meat. It can be cumbersome for a few, and for many it can be hair-splitting experience.
For the initiated, Yangcheng Lake is also an ecological retreat. The natural views and marine life makes for a great biodiversity. The large circular lotus leaves rise like a giant above the surface of the shallow waters, some of them strong enough to hold discarded cigarette butts and empty water bottles and cans.
The aquatic plant is as much a part of the local folklore as much as its prized — and expensive — hairy crab.
Approaching Yangcheng Lake in neighboring Jiangsu Province, there’s an unmistakable end-of-season feel to the place.
It might be the cloud dulling the landscape after days of bright autumn sunshine; or it could be the sleepy dog eyeing us disdainfully while scratching its ear as we arrive. Whatever, listlessness hangs heavy.
Taking a punt on the lake, gliding among the lotus leaves, adds to this languid vibe. Their flowers are long gone, a distant memory of summer, and leaves that once burst from the water are now ragged and papery, soon to return to the lake mud.
We find some of the few remaining lotus heads and break them open to reach the seeds. It’s all very tranquil sitting on the boat, munching on sweet lotus seeds while viewing the lake before us, its opposite bank lost in mist.
But this peaceful scene is misleading, for beneath the surface of Yangcheng Lake something is stirring or rather, scuttling.
Yep, hairy crab season is almost upon us and Yangcheng Lake is the place to go for the Chinese delicacy.
We’re guests of the splendidly named Crab Fairy Mansion — Xie Xian Lou — where customers can trace their hairy crabs from the lake to the plate.
A closer look at the cages partly submerged from platforms in the lake reveals numerous leg tips poking through the mesh; the season’s early hairy crabs scaling the sides of their confines.
Staff open one cage, net some crabs, carefully lay them on their backs, fold claws over armored chests almost with tenderness, then expertly truss them up, ready for the pot.
And, of course, that’s why we’re here: to sample some hairy crabs.
We’re led to a private dining room with a beautiful view of the lake and presented with a feast of local produce.
Highlights include river snails (surprisingly good), a large, delicately flavored flatfish, another fish with a sweet, smoky taste, fresh from the river, and all accompanied by moreish pumpkin porridge.
Then there’s the main attraction: the hairy crab itself — aka da zha xie (大闸蟹), aka big sluice crab, aka the Chinese mitten crab.
More used to being confronted by fearsome-looking crustaceans hauled from the Atlantic and requiring almost industrial tools to crack, I’m never quite sure what to make of the diminutive Chinese version.
The fact that the hairy crab is regarded as an invasive pest species in Britain also somewhat detracts from its allure.
And then there are the practicalities. Finicky is the word that springs to mind when describing tackling da zha xie.
We’re each given a pair of hairy crabs (fact fans, the female has a round abdomen) and under the guidance/mockery of colleagues I follow the intricate process of getting to the crab meat.
• Stage 1: Remove the bottom plate. Check.
• Stage 2: Discard the heart and some white flesh. Check.
• Stage 3: Tuck into the flesh in the carapace, dipping it in vinegar. Check. And it’s very tasty — the roe a creamy highlight.
• Stage 4: Break open the legs and claws. Nope. Extremities prove more troublesome. While I marvel at colleagues effortlessly extracting the flesh with their chopsticks, I’m reduced to furtively crunching on crab leg.
Feast of hairy crabs concluded, we take our leave of Crab Fairy Mansion and Yangcheng Lake, where the season far from ending is just beginning.