Photo courtesy of Culinary Backstreets
Autumn is here, which signals the much-anticipated return of hairy crab season! While those in western countries start to go gaga over pumpkin-spiced everything, here in Hong Kong we go bonkers for hirsute decapods. So named for their fuzzy pincers, Chinese mitten crabs come from the Tai and Yangcheng Lakes near Suzhou and Hangzhou and are considered a delicious delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine. Whether you’re a seasoned crab eater or a beginner in the whole craze, here’s everything you need to know about hairy crabs and how to enjoy them!
One of the most contentious topics regarding hairy crabs is the debate on which gender of crab tastes better. The bright orange roe in female crabs hardens slightly after cooking, while the golden essence from male crabs is stickier, with a texture similar to salted egg yolk. This rich roe is the very cornerstone of the crab craze, and we think both are delicious. Female crabs ripen earlier and are consumed around the ninth lunar month, while male crabs peak approximately a month later, so you can try both to decide for yourself.
Photos courtesy Weekender SG and Cookagraphy
How to eat hairy crabs
Eating crabs is a messy but rewarding business. As food and travel writer Fuchsia Dunlop put it, “You must pull off the legs and claws, prise open the shells, and scrape, pick, suck, and crunch until you have extracted every last, delicious morsel.” Don’t be put off by this seemingly violent imagery though, and don’t be afraid to really dig in and get your hands dirty. Fanatics will tell you the proper way to eat hairy crab is to just use chopsticks and a pair of scissors (and to rearrange the shells afterwards back into the form of a crab), but we say just do whatever you need to in order to get every bit out!
First, start with the legs. Separate them at the joints, cut them open on each end, and insert the thinner lower leg into the upper section to push out the meat inside. Then crack open the claws and pull out the large chunks of meat hidden away. Once you’re done with the extremities, prise open the lined underbelly segment. This is also how you can tell the crab’s gender; if the segment is triangular it’s a male, if it’s circular then the crab is female. Open the shell to get to the rich roe and slurp away!
Read more! Here are some double-stewed Chinese soups that are good for autumn.
What to know about hairy crabs
Bear in mind that in traditional Chinese medicinal terms, hairy crabs are considered a ‘cooling’ food. They should therefore never be eaten together with other ‘cooling’ foods such as bitter gourd or bamboo shoots. Persimmons and crabs are supposed to be a particularly lethal combination. Women, most of whom inherently have a ‘cold’ temperament medically, should take care not to overindulge.
This is why hairy crabs are always served with ginger slivers in Zhenjiang vinegar as a dipping sauce—these are both ‘warming’ foods that will counteract the ‘coolness’ of the crabs. You could go a step further and add a ‘warming’ Shaoxing or Huadiao wine or ginger tea to the meal as well.
Photo courtesy of UnTour Food Tours
How to cook hairy crabs at home
We find the best way to enjoy these crustaceans is in their purest form, simply boiled at home. Get your crabs from wet markets or dedicated seafood shops; we like Old San Yang, a well-established Shanghainese grocer carrying foodstuffs including jinhua Chinese ham, and zongzi dumplings.
Leaving the strings binding them intact, rinse the crabs well under running water. Put them on a dish to steam, but remember to have them belly side up to prevent any roe from escaping. You can also add a few perilla leaves in the water the traditional Shanghainese way to bring out the crab’s natural sweetness.
Make your own dipping sauce simply by mixing Zhenjiang vinegar with a bit of red sugar (and a dash of soy sauce if you’re inclined to savoury tastes) and some slivers of ginger. As you dig in, don’t forget to take out the gills, the pillowy lungs, the vaguely triangular stomach, and the grey rubbery heart. These are either inedible or even ‘colder’ than the meat, so take care not to gobble it all down in your fervour.
Old San Yang, 4 Pak Sha Road, Causeway Bay | (+852) 2890 2534
Read more! Craving other traditional foods? Explore the best dumplings in Hong Kong.
Where to eat hairy crabs
Restaurants city-wide will be offering a whole variety of hairy crab-related dishes for those who cannot be bothered with the carnage themselves. Expect to find specials such as crab meat and roe on tofu, crab on silky egg whites, vegetables stir-fried with crab roe, and the much-loved crab roe xiao long bao.
Michelin-starred Duddell’s Hong Kong will have a Six-Course Hairy Crab Tasting Menu ($1,688), as well as a la carte dishes for a limited time. We’re looking forward to the a la carte Pan-fried Tiger Prawn Stuffed with Hairy Crab Coral ($348) and Steamed Grouper Roll with Hairy Crab Coral and Asparagus among others. Additional steamed hairy crabs are also available at $728 per 260 grams, and you can add $588 for three choices of ‘warming’ yellow wine pairings.
Duddell’s, 3/F, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central | (+852) 2525 9191
Interestingly, Chef Crandall at The Tai Pan is bringing out a seasonal Hairy Crab Risotto ($220) because he was inspired by a crab congee that he had whilst ill. The dish has, therefore, become a Western classic fused with a traditional Chinese element; Carnaroli rice is simmered in ginger-infused stock, then topped with balsamic vinegar pearls and coriander foam.
The Tai Pan, UG/F, The Murray, 22 Cotton Tree Drive, Admiralty | (+852) 3141 8888
Old Bailey has launched 14 dishes made with premium hairy crabs from Hokkaido for a limited time only. Start off the feast with Hairy Crab Roe Xiaolongbao which you can choose to have with ($188) or without ($128) Iberico ham. There is also the Sautéed Hairy Crab Meat with Hairy Crab Roe ($788)—juicy flesh and golden roe are sautéed with ginger, crab vinegar, and Huadiao wine, so this is essentially the full crab experience but without the hassle of de-shelling it yourself. Old Bailey also has an eight-course tasting menu ($988) featuring gems such as Braised Imperial Bird Nest with Hairy Crab Roe. Perfection.
Old Bailey, 2/F, JC Contemporary, Tai Kwun, Old Bailey Street, Central | (+852) 2877 8711
A hairy crab promotional menu will be running at Chinese fine dining restaurant Man Hing until November 30. A dozen dishes will be in the line-up, and we are particularly looking forward to the Pan-fried Japanese Scallop with Hairy Crab Roe ($178), the Claypot Rice with Hairy Crab Roe and Sea Urchin ($398), and the light Steam Egg White with Hairy Crab Roe and Crab Meat ($278). It’s worth noting that these prices are for the general public; members of the Greater China Club will be entitled to a discount on each of these dishes.
Man Hing, Unit A, 10/F, D2 Place One, 9 Cheung Yee Street, Lai Chi Kok | (+852) 2743 8055
We also know a local socialite who is a huge foodie and around this time every year, he makes a week-long trip (or should we say ‘pilgrimage’?) up to China specifically to feast on hairy crabs. According to him, the following restaurants serve the best hairy crabs in Hong Kong. Happy crabbing, everyone!
Man Wah, 25/F, Mandarin Oriental, 5 Connaught Road Central, Central | (+852) 2825 4003
Victoria City, 2/F, Sun Hung Kai Centre, 30 Harbour Road, Wan Chai | (+852) 2827 9938
Man Ho Chinese Restaurant, 3/F, JW Marriott Hong Kong, Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty | (+852) 2810 8366
Wah Kee Wing Cheong, 458–460 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai | (+852) 2557 5688