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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 Lake Tai and Lake Yangcheng near Suzhou and Hangzhou and are considered a delicious delicacy in southern Chinese cuisine.
Whether you are a seasoned crab eater who’s already in the know about the best hairy crab menus in town, or a beginner in the whole craze, here’s everything you need to know about hairy crabs and how to enjoy them!
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.
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.
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 are 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, and if it’s circular, then the crab is female. Open the shell to get to the rich roe and slurp away!
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 like Jinhua ham and zongzi (粽子; glutinous rice 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 Yan Sang (老三陽), G/F, 44A Tung Lung Street, Causeway Bay | (+852) 2895 1482
Restaurants city-wide are 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.
We 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, Man Wah, Man Ho Chinese Restaurant, and Wah Kee Wing Cheong serve the best hairy crabs in Hong Kong. Additionally, see the following restaurants for their seasonal hairy crab menus, available from now until the end of the hairy crab season. Happy crabbing, everyone!