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In search of the best hairy crabs nature can offer
By Ruby Gao

It’s hairy crab season again. This means lovers of the delicacy will be seeking the best crabs they can sink their teeth into for the next couple of months.

Crabs from Yangcheng Lake in neighboring Jiangsu Province remain the most sought-after as they are widely considered to taste the best.

But for real connoisseurs, this still isn’t good enough. The crabs have to be free range, or shengtai xie (生态蟹), not farmed crabs, which dominate the market.

Crab farmer Liu Hongquan says Yangcheng Lake’s clean water, shallow depth of around 1.8 meters and hard lake bed that is rich in calcium gives the crabs a green back, white abdomen and golden claws.

Huang Feijue, a Shanghai hairy crab connoisseur, says shengtai xie roam freely in Yangcheng lake for food.

“They eat snails, small fish, shrimps and float grass,” Huang says.

Compared with farmed crabs, shengtai xie are much more active and absorb more diverse nutrients. This leads to sweeter, more delicate meat and richer roe, Huang says. 

Most hairy crabs on the market are farmed. At Yangcheng Lake, a crab farm of around 666 square meters will lead to a catch of 600 to 1,000 crabs annually. They are raised in a crowded environment with little room to skitter about.

There are also dishonest industry people who sell “shower crabs.” These crustaceans have been raised in another lake but are transferred to Yangcheng Lake and dipped in it for a few seconds and then sold as “authentic” Yangcheng Lake crabs.

Due to higher costs, free-range crabs are hard to find.

Shanghai Daily recommends Xie Xian Lou, literally meaning the Crab Fairy Mansion, a two-story crab house with a spacious garden by Yangcheng Lake. Most of its private dining rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with a 180-degree lake view.

The restaurant was formerly the research center of the Chinese Academy of Fishery Science, which was established to improve the quality of hairy crabs. The lake area nearby is said to be one of the best.

The size of its crabs vary from 150 grams to 300 grams. Besides hairy crabs, the nong jia cai (农家菜 referring to dishes popular in the countryside represented by cooking fresh and natural ingredients in a simple way) are rather delicious. Most of the vegetables are grown in the restaurant’s garden and they also raise chickens and ducks.

The free-range chicken soup and homemade salted duck eggs are two highlights. The duck eggs are wrapped in a mixture of soil and rice-straw ash, which gives the eggs a special flavor. The river shrimp boiled with green onions and pumpkin congee are also recommended.

Diners can also get a tour of the lake on Xie Xian Lou’s wooden boat.

Xie Xian Lou

Tel: (0512) 5789-6868; 137-0626-3338

Address: 3338 Hubing Rd S., Kunshan City

How to get there:

• By car: Drive along G42 (Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway) and take the Bacheng Exit. Drive along Hubing Rd S. for 3 kilometers and turn right.

• By public transport: Take the Shanghai-Nanjing High-speed Train and get off at Kunshan Station. It then takes around 30 minutes to get there by taxi.

Eating tips:

• The lungs, heart and intestines are inedible.

• Traditional Chinese medicine practitioners consider hairy crab a “cold” (yin) food. Warm Chinese rice wine is recommended when eating crab.

• Dip the crab meat and roe with vinegar and ginger sauce. This brings out the sweetness in the meat.

• Female crabs are best eaten in October while the males reach their prime in November.

Customer Service: (86-21) 52920164