Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster. China has hairy crabs.
Both creatures are strange-looking, lake-dwelling animals in high demand from locals. But I would venture a guess that Nessie is nowhere near as delicious as her Chinese counterpart.
It's been hairy crab season in Shanghai for almost a month now. What is hairy crab season? Well, hairy crabs, or Chinese mitten crabs as they're sometimes called (in Mandarin, 大闸蟹 or Dàzháxiè), particularly those from Yangcheng Lake, are popular in the Yangtze Delta region from the end of October until the end of winter.
They are characterized by their small size, the females' roe, and their claws, which often are covered in hair. (Surprise! Hairy crabs actually are hairy!)
A few weeks ago, many of my extended Chinese relatives converged in Shanghai, and we ate these delicious specimens together. After the jump read about my experience and tips for your own foray into the delectable world of hairy crabs...
We arrived at a Cantonese restaurant in Puxi (Shanghai on the west bank of the Huangpu River) and ate our way through several courses before the stars of the meal arrived. My uncle's girlfriend had made a special trip to procure the crab, which was still alive when we began eating the first course, but was very much deceased when it arrived steaming on our plates for the grand finale. Each plate held two crabs: a male and a female.
Hairy crab tip #1: Make sure you don't stuff yourself before the crabs arrive. They are really worth waiting for, despite how delicious the rest of the food you've ordered looks. That was my first mistake in my crab-eating strategy, and a near-fatal one.
Hairy crab tip #2: Order both a male and a female crab. Their taste differs greatly, and believe me, you want to get the full crab-eating experience if the opportunity presents itself! Because of my failure to adhere to tip number one, this proved nearly impossible. However, I did eat part of my second crab, a major feat in the face of fullness.
Hairy crab tip #3: Wear gloves. And maybe a bib. The waiters at our restaurant provided us with plastic, disposable gloves before we dug in. You'll likely be cracking open the shells with your own two hands, and things could get messy. (At least they did for me.) So take advantage of any protection you can coat yourself in.
Hairy crab tip #4: Eat (almost) everything. I watched closely as my relatives sucked meat out of claws and devoured the crab's digestive tissue, and then I followed suit, despite the American in me protesting the ingestion of anything but pure muscle. However, the only parts of the crab that are inedible are the shell and the gills, which are yellowy-grey in color. Everything else is fair game, so go ahead and dig in! The usual order for eating a Chinese mitten crab is:
1. The female roe or male gao, which is just under the main body shell on the underside.
2. The legs.
3. The rest of the body.
Hairy crab tip #5: If the restaurant provides a drink with the crab, do partake. In traditional Chinese though, crab meat is yin, or cold, so it is often consumed with something yang, or hot. This can include rice wine or ginger tea. It is supposed to balance your system, which can't be a bad thing, right?
Eating Shanghai's hairy crabs is an adventure to be sure, but well worth the effort. Now that's what I call getting out of a hairy situation.