Saturday, 12 October 2013
Shanghai Hairy Crabs 大閘蟹 - How Not to be Sold a Fake Yangcheng 陽澄湖 Hairy Crab
Eating Hairy Crabs 大閘蟹 is a centuries old tradition in Shanghai. Hairy Crab season in Shanghai is like durian season in Malaysia and Singapore.
When in season, Hairy Crab sellers pop up all over Shanghai city. The Hairy Crab season is from September to December, with the peak in October and November.
Some are large shops that specialise in Hairy Crabs. The shop premises are sublet to tenants or deal in other business during the Hairy Crab off season. Some are restaurants that set up special Hairy Crab departments when the hairy crustaceans are in season.
Others are simply peddlers who managed to get their hands on supplies and set up temporarily stalls to cash in on the demand.
Like durians there are many different grades of Hairy Crabs depending on its size and more importantly, it's origin.
Hairy Crabs from Yangcheng Lake 陽澄湖 are considered the best because of the lake's pristine environment. Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crabs command a huge premium over the crabs from, for example, Taihu Lake 太湖.
It's infinitely harder to get a real Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab 陽澄湖大閘蟹 than to get a premium durian like, for example, Mao Shan Wang. Where there are identifying features of Mao Shan Wang that set it apart from lesser grades of durian, there is none for Hairy Crabs. The different grades of crabs are the same species, just from different lakes.
Domestic demand for Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab is so overwhelming and growing relentlessly that it is only available in Shanghai, Beijing and perhaps, in Hong Kong. It is safe to say that all claims of Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab 陽澄湖大閘蟹 outside of these three places are fake.
Female crabs have a round palm shaped apron
Male crabs have a bell shaped apron
As all Hairy Crabs look exactly the same, traders are known to transplant crabs from other locations to Yangcheng Lake for a month and then claim that they are Yangcheng Lake crabs. These are known as 洗澡蟹 or "shower crabs" in the trade.
To complicate things further, "shower" a transplanted crab for more than 6 months in Yangcheng Lake and the authourities officially certify it 100% authentic :(
Real (not sure what this means) Yangcheng Lake crabs are tagged with an official seal but these are still no guarantee that they are the real item.
Traders are known to remove the real tags and tie them to fake Yangcheng crabs. Presto! One Yangcheng crab, becomes two :D
Needless to say, fake tags are even more rampant.
So, the only way to get real Yangcheng Lake crabs is from a reliable, trustworthy source. Which means you are too important/ influential a person for the trader/ restaurateur to risk cheating - that rules out most of us :p
So how do the rest of us, mere mortals, avoid being sold a fake Yangcheng 陽澄湖 hairy crab? Many ordinary people in Shanghai, the home of hairy crabs, have given up trying. My advice - just buy and pay only the price for ordinary Shanghai hairy crab, no matter what the trader tells you.
The most common and preferred way to eat Hairy Crabs is simply to steam it for 15 to 20 minutes. Many people eat the crabs with soy sauce, vinegar and shredded ginger. Other people like to eat the crabs neat, just by itself with nothing added.
The crab meat is sweet and slightly nutty. Hairy Crabs aren't more meaty than other species and neither are it's claws large.
Every part of the crab is eaten except for the gills. The fats when cooked are bitter and savoury and has texture like cheese. The cooked roe is intensely sweet and savoury. Both the fats and the roe are rather seductive in flavour and taste.
Hairy Crabs are available in Johor at Dragon-i Restaurant in City Square Mall, though I have not tried the crabs there before. (Note: This post was originally written in 2013 during my trip to Shanghai.)
Steamed Shanghai Hairy Crab 上海清蒸大闸蟹 from Mouth Restaurant in Singapore.
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