“In China, we say once you have tasted hairy crab, all other food is tasteless,” says diner Bonnie wang. “That’s why we eat the other dishes first.” And there are a plethora of dishes to get through. Almost 20 plates have already graced the table at Pang Xie restaurant, which sits on stilts above Yangcheng Lake, about 80km from Shanghai. The focus is on southern Chinese classics such as pork belly in a sweet, dark and rich soy glaze, pumpkin congee and steamed river fish. Bonnie, her mother and four of their friends have gathered to celebrate the Chinese National Day holidays at the beginning of October. This is more than a reunion for Bonnie, who is on a home visit from her media studies course at Melbourne’s Monash University. This banquet is a rare opportunity to enjoy a seasonal delicacy that is unavailable in Australia.
Just when it seems that stomachs are reaching full capacity, Pang Xie’s owner, 37-year-old Sandy Zhang enters the small private dining room with a big grin and eight bright orange crabs arranged on a large white plate. These specimens have been plucked directly from the waters below. Chinese prefer to buy their seafood live, so lakeside restaurants guarantee freshness, however, Pang Xie’s location promises a further assurance. Just like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci, Yangcheng Lake is a prestige brand. The lake’s hairy crabs have the most illustrious pedigree of any crab in China and are said to have been a seasonal favourite of the imperial court. Yet just like those fake designer handbags, China is awash with counterfeit crabs.
The critters laid out before us are certainly the genuine article. Not only have the previously brownish grey-green crustaceans emerged from the steamer with a bright orange shell, the underside of the claws and legs, as well as the belly are a pure white. The fine leg hairs also have a yellow hue in accordance with the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association guidelines.
The word for crab and harmony sound identical (although they are distinguished by different Chinese characters) and it is fitting. Hairy crabs are always accompanied by ‘warming’ condiments, as traditional Chinese medicine identifies crabs as having a ‘cooling’ effect on the human body. Ingredients such as ginger, sugar and a Shaoxing-style huangjiu (yellow wine) balance the crab’s yin (cold energy) with yang (hot energy). At Pang Xie, the crabs are served in the traditional manner, with hot ginger tea, sweetened dark vinegar with fresh ginger and warm yellow wine.
It is just as well that Bonnie and her guests have eaten heartily. The crabs themselves yield little meat, although what can be extracted has a deliciously delicate and slightly sweet flavour. The process of eating hairy crab is certainly labour-intensive. “It’s tricky,” Bonnie admits. “If you don’t know how to eat them, then you probably won’t get any meat. I started to eat hairy crabs at a very young age... they’re smaller than king crabs and snow crabs – you have to be skilful.”
She certainly has a point. The crab on my plate has a shell the size of my palm. Tucked under its body are thick pincers with a curious mane of thick greenish fur. Being something of a crab novice, I stare blankly at my crab, and thankfully, Bonnie comes to my rescue.
The first thing is to remove the white armour that covers the belly. With a little leverage from my thumbnail, it comes away easily. My first crab is a female with a concentration of roe the colour of egg yolk, which I am advised to slurp up immediately. While enjoying hairy crab is considered a refined pursuit, it is not a dainty exercise.
Bonnie’s preference is to then pull off the top shell, pour in some vinegar and then use it as a little bowl as she picks away the meat with chopsticks and drinks the rest. Then it gets really messy. Standard procedure is to pick the gills away from each side of the naked crab and then tear the beast in two down its middle. Then all but one of its legs on either half are ripped off. The remaining limbs are used as handles for dunking the torso meat in vinegar.
Leg meat extraction provides the highest level of difficulty in hairy crab eating. While Ming Dynasty craftsmen developed special hairy crab tools that look not unlike surgical instruments, at Pang Xie, the majority of work is left to fingers and teeth. A particularly handy tip is to slide a smaller leg segment into a larger one after biting off each end, thus widening the opening. It’s worth the effort: out comes a perfect tube of tasty crab meat.
Soon, the table is strewn with piles of crab detritus. Raucous laughter spills from a neighbouring dining room as Sandy returns with another plate of crabs. Yet, while my dining companions dextrously dissect their way through shell, leg and claw, I struggle to successfully negotiate my way through just two crabs over the lunch’s climax. There are plenty of other leftovers, which is considered good luck, as it is a display of abundance. Hairy crabs, however, seem to be an exception to the rule. The lunch only ends when all the crabs have been polished off.
China’s hairy crab industry was commercialised in the early 1980s. The first restaurants opened soon after and today, the lake is surrounded by thousands of eateries. Sandy, whose grandparents were fishermen and her father a crab farmer on Yangcheng Lake, feeds her crabs a special diet of pumpkin, corn, fish and sea snails. Nevertheless, she considers the pH-neutral waters of the lake to be the secret of her crabs’ flavour. They are easy to breed and so good at adapting to different environments that they are often considered an invasive species outside China. The whole process of raising a crab from egg to the table takes about three years.
While Pang Xie is open from September to the end of January, the peak of hairy crab season is considered to be from October (for female crabs) through November (for male crabs). The seasonal nature of the crab trade is no trouble for Sandy. It is so lucrative that she cannot keep up with demand. “The price of crabs has doubled in the past eight years,” says Sandy. A large part of her clientele consists of government officials and businessmen who often present each other with ‘business gifts’ of hairy crab to oil the wheels of Chinese commerce. Such gifts are always presented live. So popular are hairy crabs that Chinese airports have signs announcing a ban on crabs as hand luggage. Sandy regularly sends her crabs via courier as far as Hong Kong, Taiwan and even Tibet.
Sandy’s mother cooks and manages the restaurant and farm, while Sandy works in Shanghai at a trade company. There are countless Chinese recipes for crab, but those cooked at Pang Xie are always steamed whole to showcase the famous Yangcheng Lake flavour.
While Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs are an unaffordable luxury for most Chinese, hairy crab season still transcends all social boundaries within communist China. In Shanghai, crab vendors can be found in the narrow laneways of historic Old Town, on street corners, open-air markets and along famous food streets such as Wulumuqi Road in the French Concession. Some stations and convenience stores even have vending machines that dispense near-frozen, but still live, hairy crabs.
Xiao Jian, 40, has been selling hairy crabs from a shopfront on Wulumuqi Road for almost half her life. The crabs that crawl about in the tanks that line the walls of her small store are sourced from Kunshan, not far east of Yangcheng Lake.
Xiao handles the customers while two of her employees, husband and wife Jianlong and Jiang Qu, scrub and dunk crabs in troughs of water outside along the narrow footpath. Once they are clean, the workers take the end of a long piece of twine in their mouths as they tether the loose end around a crab’s legs and claws to prevent it from escaping or biting.
“People like crabs because they’re good for the body, but the main reason is because they taste good and they aren’t always in season,” says Xiao. “You shouldn’t eat them when you’ve got a cold though,” she advises, “they’ll just make you colder.”
Xiao’s smallest crabs sell for $1.50, while her largest ones fetch around $15. In contrast, a pair of medium-sized Yangcheng Lake crabs are sold for almost $24.50 at Pang Xie restaurant, steamed and ready to eat. “Yangcheng Lake crabs are better,” Xiao admits, “but I don’t have the connections to get them. Most of them are exported or eaten by important people.”
A few days after my Yangcheng Lake crab feast, I am invited to dine with one of the important people Xiao alluded to: Tang Qingyu, 54, owner of The Bund Riverside Hotel – one of about 20 companies in the tycoon’s stable, including businesses in the industries of manufacturing, import and export, car sales and so on. Tang is a close friend of Bonnie’s mother, Crystal, who, along with her daughter, is also back for more hairy crab.
The hotel’s owner has a busy night ahead of him as he is also entertaining a group of Japanese businessmen on a separate floor. While he ducks out to attend to them, I take a look inside one of the hotel’s kitchens where 27-year-old sous chef Chris Shan is preparing our hairy crabs. Chris prefers to boil his crabs in water with a generous splash of beer, but first, we will dine on a variety of dishes that include shrimps in a light soy sauce, drunken chicken and cubes of wagyu topped with crisp fried garlic slices.
The entrees are accompanied by a 2001 Château Barateau that Tang bought on a visit to Bordeaux. Via translation from Bonnie, I am told that this wine is only served to his VIP guests. After our glasses are charged, Tang expertly swirls the wine, takes a deep sniff, raises his glass, looks me in the eye and says “gan bei!” This literally means “drain your cup!” so down the hatch it goes. Thus commences a time-honoured Chinese business ritual of going from sober to tipsy in the shortest possible time punctuated by numerous pronouncements of “gan bei!”
By the time our crabs arrive, orange, glistening and sprinkled with chrysanthemum leaves, we are all flushed with the warmth of red wine. Soon Tang and I are exchanging compliments via Bonnie that praise each other’s personal fitness, taste in wine, youthful vigour and so on, with each compliment followed by another “gan bei!”
While traditional Chinese medicine decrees that the coolness of crabs must be compensated with warming foods and condiments, I, for one, can vouch that in any language, too much warming Bordeaux can result in a splitting headache the following day.
Photography Dave Tacon
As seen in Feast Magazine, Issue 16, pg114.