Grabbing the two posterior legs is the right way to handle live crabs. (Li Anlan)
The crabbing season for freshwater hairy crabs is a true extravaganza for food lovers. Especially if they are enjoyed in crab feast style — that is, four to eight courses of hairy crab dishes in a row. It sounds like a lot of cholesterol for one night, but many people find it's worth the splurge.
Hairy crabs have been in the market for a couple of weeks. As 2017 is a bumper year, the quality is good and the prices reasonable now.
And as the Chinese pay particular attention to the timing of ingredients, October is the best time to enjoy the female hairy crabs, while the male crabs mature a littler later in November.
Incorporating hairy crabs in dishes like xiaolongbao (steamed bun) and "lion's head" meatball is a classic technique in jiangnan, the region in the south of the Yangtze River. Although you can order such dishes all year round which can be made of frozen crab meat and roe, the best time to sample the freshest treat is between October and December.
Gao Xiaosheng, executive Chinese chef at the Pudong Shangri-La, East Shanghai, has crafted this season's hairy crab menu centering on the all-time classics in Huaiyang cuisine, like the lion's head meatball with hairy crab meat and roe and sautéed hairy crab meat and roe.
It is one thing to eat a whole steamed hairy crab by hand, it is another to cook with the ingredient, as more crabs are required to make even the simplest dish and the task is very time consuming.
It took Gao, with years of experience as a chef of Huaiyang cuisine, roughly 10 minutes to finish with a female hairy crab that weighed a little more than 100 grams. To make one plate of sautéed hairy crab meat and roe (300 grams), at least 1.5 kilograms of steamed crabs are needed, said Gao.
In restaurants, the kitchen staff often work as an assembly line to improve efficiency of the tedious mission — each person is responsible for extracting crab meat or roe from a particular part of the crustacean, namely the crab's claws, the legs and the body.
Gao also offered a tip for handling live hairy crabs, especially the male ones that are larger, stronger and more aggressive.
"Grab the two posterior legs, that way no matter how the crab struggles, its claws cannot hurt your fingers," he said.
The traditional hairy crab dishes don't appear to be very complicated, as it's mostly about highlighting the original umami taste and sweetness of the crabs.
Like hairy crab and rice cake stir-fry, a dish that combines the sumptuous crabs with a jiangnan staple is typical Chinese home-style cooking.
But for the upscale crab feasts, details matter.
The classic Huaiyang soup dish called qiulu yinshuang(秋露银霜), which translates into the autumn dew and silver frost, uses only the abdominal meat of the male crabs.
"The leg meat is denser while the meat from the abdomen is softer and tenderer," explained Gao.
And the sautéed hairy crab meat and roe uses the roe and abdominal meat of the female crabs only.
Manao jinsi (玛瑙金丝), which means agate and gold threads, is a traditional hairy crab dish that stews the crab meat and roe with shark fin.
"There is also manao yinsi (agate and silver threads), the one I'm making this season which uses fish maw instead of shark fin, because it's more environmentally friendly in my opinion," said Gao.
"This dish uses the meat from the crab's abdomen and the roe."
When making the hairy crab lion's head meatball, the common proportion is 75 grams of crab meat and roe for every 500 grams of minced pork.
Gao also used more Western-style ingredients in his hairy crab menu, like an upgraded version of hairy crab lion's head meatball that adds Spanish 5J Cinco Jotas ham to give the flavors a boost, and a special steamed dumpling with hairy crab and pork filling that's seasoned with a hint of black truffle.
Xieniangcheng, or orange stuffed with minced crab meat and roe, is another signature hairy crab dish in Hangzhou that seasons the crab meat and roe with ginger and aged Shaoxing wine before stuffing it back inside the orange bowl with wine to steam. It has a sweet and sour flavor.
Warm yellow wine is the ideal beverage to pair with hairy crabs. This Chinese alcoholic drink is mild and sweet while boasting amino acids and warming up the body.
Chrysanthemum or osmanthus flower teas are the beverage of the season that also works well with the hairy crabs, bringing out the sweetness and umami flavor from the crabs and cleansing the palate with the light aromas.
Tony Lu, consultant chef of Michelin-starred Yong Yi Ting restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai, is thinking outside the box when creating this season's hairy crab feast experience.