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Bibs on, nutcrackers at hand: dive into crab feasts

2016-October-13       Source: ecns.cn

In the months to come, Shanghai gourmets will be consuming tons of hairy crabs, accompanied by warmed yellow wine and aromatic teas.

"Even after death, their armor and their lengthy spears are never forgotten, so nice they look, piled in the plate, that first to taste them I'd fain be.

In every pair of legs they have, the crabs are full of tender jade-like meat, each piece of ruddy roe, which in their shell bumps up, emits a fragrant smell.

Besides much meat, they have a greater relish for me still, eight feet as well, who bid me drink a thousand cups of wine in order to liven me up?

What time I can behold their luscious food, with the fine season doth accord, when osmanthus fragrance are flowing in the breeze, and the chrysanthemums are decked with frost." -

— Lin Daiyu

Lin Daiyu's poem in the 38th chapter of Cao Xueqin's "Dream of the Red Chamber" was one of three poetic tributes composed at a crab feast that is perhaps the most notable account of eating crabs in classic Chinese literature.

At this fictitious feast, a whole family enjoyed an extravagant meal of large, fat crabs in serviced in their steaming baskets. Lin, who was always weak and sickly, didn't partake of many crabs when Granny Liu visited the Jia House in the 39th chapter, the village lady said a crab banquet like that would have cost 20 taels of silver, enough to feed a farm family for a whole year.

The story is set around the Chongyang Festival, also known as the Double Ninth Festival because it falls on the ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar. That's considered the best time to eat hairy crabs. This year the festival was on October 9.

In the months to come, Shanghai gourmets will be consuming tons of hairy crabs, accompanied by warmed yellow wine and aromatic teas.

How to eat whole crabs

The most renowned place of origin for the freshwater hairy crabs is the Yangcheng Lake region in Jiangsu Province. Certified crabs from there are more expensive than those from other lakes because of their high quality.

As market demand for hairy crabs climbs year on year, the crustaceans are being farmed and harvested across many other locations as well.

One detail in the crab feast tale in "Dream of the Red Chamber" occurs when Lady Feng orders servants not to bring too many crabs to the tables at one time, instructing them to limit each round to 10 crabs so that each round is fresh from the steamer.

The hairy crab is a tricky aquatic product to preserve, both fresh and cooked. The crustacean must be alive when it's cooked and should never be served cold after being steamed.

When steaming the crabs at home, it's best to throw in some perilla leaves, an herb from the mint family that can reduce the fishiness and coldness from the crabs.

Eating hairy crabs is as much fun as it is tasty. Anticipation rises during the process of opening the crab shell and removing threads of the sweet meat.

In "Dream of the Red Chamber," Auntie Xue refuses to let Lady Feng help her scoop out the meat, saying," It will be sweeter if I open them with my own hands."

The hairy crab is a bit messy. Cracking the shell, removing the organs and eating the meat is an acquired skill.

You need to take a hot steamed crab, tear away the legs and put them aside. Then you flip the crab on its back and remove the ventral shell. If you encounter any roe left on the tail part, just eat it straight up.

Removing the top shell reveals where most of the orange roe is hidden. It can be scraped up with a spoon. If the taste is too rich, add just a little vinegar seasoned with chopped ginger and sugar to balance the taste.

The next step is important. You need to remove the non-edible parts of the crab --— its lungs, intestines and especially the heart, which is located near the bottom under a thin membrane.

Break the body in half and enjoy the sweet, tender meat with or without vinegar. After finishing eating the body, move on to the legs and scoop out the meat from the second joint. You can use the sharp tip part of the leg as a tool or go for the more convenient small scissors to cut open the legs. For the hard claws, it's better to use a nutcracker to extract the meat.

Warm yellow wine is the ideal beverage to pair with hairy crabs. This Chinese fermented liquor is mild and sweet, with amino acids that warm the body.

Chrysanthemum or osmanthus flower teas also work well, bringing out the sweetness and umami flavor of the crabs and cleansing the palate.

Hairy crab feast

For the utmost indulgence of the seasonal delicacy, one can also go for a hairy crab feast that features not only the classic steamed crabs but also other Chinese dishes that utilize the crab meat and roe.

Classic hairy crab dishes include tofu with crab meat and roe, soup dumplings with crab meat and roe fillings, hairy crab butter with rice, and xie dou, a mixture of crab meat and pork or potato paste that's stuffed in a crab shell and baked in the oven.

Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace restaurant (成隆行蟹王府) is the go-to place for sampling various hairy crab dishes. Although the franchise serves crab all year around, now is the best time to enjoy this seasonal delicacy in its prime.

A typical hairy crab feast menu features xie dou, tofu with crab meat and roe, steamed hairy crab (preferably female in October and male in November, when the roe is at its best), crab meat with either rice or noodles and soup dumpling with crab meat and roe filling.

Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace charges an average 400 yuan (US$60) per person for a standard crab feast.

How to make your own hairy crab butter

The hairy crab season is very short, and the best quality crabs will last only until December.

One traditional way to preserve the flavor of the crustacean is to make hairy crab butter, or tu huang you, a paste made with fresh crab meat and roe with pork fat.

Lard is the essential ingredient in making hairy crab butter. Simmer 250 grams of fatty pork cubes slowly until they shrink and dry up, leaving the oil in the pan.

Fry green onion and ginger until the aroma comes out, and then remove the residue.

Pour in 500 grams of crab meat and roe, and add yellow wine, fresh ginger paste and vinegar. Stir for five minutes, and then it's ready to serve.

Hairy crab butter can be preserved in sealed dry glass containers, topped with a layer of lard for a longer shelf life in the fridge.

The best way to to eat the hairy crab butter is serve it atop a bowl of hot rice or noodles, letting the lard and crab meat melt.

Editor: Steven

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