From traditional to new wave, hairy crab dishes for all tastes

The hairy crab feast sounds like a lot of cholesterol for one night, but many people find it's worth the splurge.

Filmed by Li Anlan. Edited by Li Anlan and Andy Boreham.

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.

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Only a small saucer of meat and roe can be extracted from a hairy crab.

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.

Chef Gao Xiaosheng demonstrates the right way to hold an unstrained live hairy crab.

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.”

Li Anlan / SHINE

Manao yinsi is made of hairy crab meat and roe with fish maw.

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.

Unconstrained ideas

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.

The majority of the dishes on his hairy crab menu are creative spins of Chinese classics. For example, the crispy taro dumplings stuffed with hairy crab meat and roe is an elevated version of the Cantonese snack that replaces the minced pork filling with hairy crab meat and roe to complement the natural sweet flavor of taro.

Miangeda, or dough balls, are a popular comfort food around the country. Lu has created a braised sea cucumber and hairy crab meat that’s full of umami flavor and can instantly warm up the body on colder days.

Hairy crab and bean curd stew is a very classic dish of the season one can find in most restaurants that serve the crab.

Lu has decided to make a dim sum based on this dish — a shaomai (steamed dumpling) with hairy crab meat and minced bean curd filling.

“The small shaomai embraces the flavors and styles of both northern and southern cooking. The open-ended top of the dumpling blossoms like a flower bud, which is a technique more common in the north, while the inside is true southern flavor,” explained Lu.

Ti Gong

A shaomai with hairy crab meat and minced bean curd filling created by Tony Lu.

But perhaps the most innovative dish on Lu’s menu is the soufflé, an iconic dish that returns every season. Light egg white, meat and roe are wrapped inside buttery French pastry.

“In chocolate soufflé, the texture of the chocolate is quite similar to the hairy crab meat and roe, which is very rich and aromatic, so I combined the very jiangnan-style hairy crab with the Western dessert soufflé,” said Lu.

Lu specializes in incorporating his own ideas inspired by modern gastronomy. The chilled crab meat jelly with champagne and caviar is a fusion appetizer that brings together the intense flavors of the hairy crab, sea urchin, caviar and fig vinegar pearls, so is the avocado tartare with drunken meat and buckwheat chips.

Although most hairy crab dishes are traditional recipes like tofu with hairy crab meat and roe, some restaurants in Shanghai are expanding their repertoire to incorporate the seasonal ingredient in more creative dishes.

Breaking down a hairy crab

It takes at least 10 steps to thoroughly extract the meat and roe from the small crabs that weigh no more than 200 grams. Here is chef Gao's demostration:

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1. Remove the legs and claws from the body.

Li Anlan / SHINE

2. Open the top shell of the body.

Li Anlan / SHINE

3. Remove the inedible parts of the hairy crab delicately — its lungs, intestines and especially the heart which is located near the bottom of the crab under a thin membrane.

Li Anlan / SHINE

4. Scrape off the roe left in the shell.

Li Anlan / SHINE

5. Scrape off the roe in the body.

Li Anlan / SHINE

6. Cut off the coxa to break apart the crab’s body, then scrape off all the meat.

Li Anlan / SHINE

7. Break down the crab leg by cutting in the carpus.

Li Anlan / SHINE

8. Carefully pick out all the meat from the thickest portion of the leg.

Li Anlan / SHINE

9. Cut through the hard claws to reveal the meat.

Li Anlan / SHINE

10. Scrape the meat out of the claws.

Think creatively

Although most hairy crab dishes are traditional recipes like tofu with hairy crab meat and roe, some restaurants in Shanghai are expanding their repertoire to incorporate the seasonal ingredient in more creative dishes.

Creative Crab Flavor 蟹榭

As the name suggests, this restaurant specializes in unique and innovative crab dishes you probably won’t find elsewhere else.

One of their top items on the menu is spicy stew of hairy crab meat and roe with wild peach gum, which is a gelatin-like ingredient with many health benefits. The dish is similar to manao jinsi or manao yinsi in concept, but brings a more interesting texture.

Their baked conch stuffed with hairy crab meat and roe combines the flavors of the sea and lake, and the traditional Shanghainese noodle mixed with scallion oil is also served with a hairy crab meat and roe topping.

Average price: 200 yuan (US$30) per person

Address: 4/F, 68 Yuyuan Rd

Wang Bao He Restaurant 王宝和酒家

Known for their hairy crab cuisine, Wang Bao He Restaurant serves both traditional and creative crab dishes.

While hairy crab xiaolongbao is a more common dim sum of the season, Wang Bao He also has a savory rice dumpling stuffed with minced pork and hairy crab meat and roe.

Average price: 260 yuan per person

Address: 603 Fuzhou Rd

Bar Constellation 酒池星座

A Western-style bar seems to be an unlikely place to sample hairy crab, but the newly opened Bar Constellation has brought an ultimate rice dish featuring two favorite crustaceans — crayfish and hairy crab.

The 198-yuan creation mixes hairy crab meat and roe and crayfish with steamed rice, which is served in a stone pot. The dish is very heavy and rich.

Average price: 200 yuan per person

Address: 1/F, Taikoo Hui, 288 Shimen Rd No.1

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