Food Fit for the Emperor

For some expatriates, especially for the newcomers, the term “hairy crabs” may sound rather “off putting” right from the start. However, for those of us who have been living in China for quite a while, will probably have heard about or have even sampled the delicious meat of those crawling creatures.

A costly luxury

Hairy crabs are seasonal and quite expensive. They are often dubbed as the Iranian or Russian caviar of China. The Chinese say that those who buy the hairy crabs are usually those who cannot afford to eat the meat themselves but give them to their friends, relatives or their superiors as a token of their respects and affection. On the other hand, those who can afford them, do not have to buy, as they are already presented with the gift. Isn’t that ironic?

If you are an adventurous type and curious but still have not tried the crabs, you’ll have to do it now. Since this regional delicacy is offered only during the fall season, around October, you shouldn’t wait too long.

A delicate dish

Crabs are divided in two categories… sea crabs and fresh water crabs. Hairy crabs belong to fresh water and their meat has been considered a delicacy and a luxury from time immemorial. In the olden days eating crabs – whether sea or fresh water… was confined only to high-ranking officials and scholars in China. However, nowadays a dish made of crabmeat is found in the menu of many restaurants and is affordable even by ordinary people.

Eating crabs in China began in the Song Dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty a poem was written about the benefit of eating crabs and the best time to eat them. During Qing Dynasty, there was a popular saying that became, no doubt, a vogue for the rich… “Eating crabs and enjoying chrysanthemum”.

The best fresh water crabs in China are said to come from Yangcheng Lake that lies in Kunshan, Wuxi and Changsu. However, Kunshan, an industrial city about an hour’s drive from Shanghai on the Huning Highway, boasts the highest output of crabs and the most famous. The crabs here are big, tender and nutritious and because of their popularity, many of them are exported to Macau and Hong Kong.

Crabs require different environments for growth. Usually, they can grow and reproduce at the point where the sea and river merge. In autumn when the crabs have become mature, they return to the Yangtze River and reproduce there while the baby crabs grow in the lake. Since the hairy crabs love grass and clean water, the quiet Yangcheng Lake provides the most suitable environment for growth. The crabs from Yangcheng Lake have “blue back, white belly, yellow hair and golden claws”. Each weighs about 200 to 250 grams.

There was a drastic decline in the growth of crabs in 1958 when dams along the Yangtze River were built to prevent flooding. These dams had blocked the return of baby crabs into the river. However, from 1961 to 1963 after studies were done on the growth rhythm of the river crabs, steps were taken to ensure their normal growth.

A seasonal extravagance

In 1986, Kunshan began to raise crabs by placing their new-borns in the ponds. About fifty percent survived and, since then, a number of crabs have been placed in various lakes in the area. Needless to say, a number of people made a lot of money raising crabs… at that time there was no restriction on catching crabs and it was done freely. Lately, in order to ensure that the crabs have a chance to develop into an acceptable size and produce good meat, the government banned fishermen from catching them at certain times of the year… in spring and in summer.

During autumn, crabs are in abundance and can easily be caught. They are attracted to light and are especially active at night. Various methods are used to catch them. One method is to use a bamboo weir with traps. Lights are set up at the areas that are frequented by crabs. Another method is by using a silk net. As soon as a crab touches the net, it is caught. The oldest method used by farmers, however, was to simply tread on the crabs and catch them.

Most people eat hairy crabs steamed – the writer of this column included. Before cooking, it is essential that you clean them thoroughly as their hairy legs seem to catch enough dirt to kill an elephant. They are then tied and steamed in a big saucepan until they turn red, which takes about 10 minutes. Some people mix vinegar, ginger, and sugar and use the mixture as the sauce. Personally, I put some lemon grass, kifir leaves and onions onto the steamer before placing the crabs on top. As a sauce I mix vinegar, sugar, ginger, garlic and chili. Whatever you do, the crabs must always be eaten piping hot.

Bon Apetit!