The Chinese have a saying, “when the Autumn winds blow, the hairy crabs grow”.
The highly anticipated seasonal Chinese mitten crab, more commonly known as ‘hairy crab’ for its furry claws, is celebrated for its sweet, rich roe. The crabs are cultivated in Lake Tai and Yangcheng Lake in the Jiangsu province of China and are a delicacy in Shanghainese cuisine.
Hairy crabs do not have a lot of meat, but both males and females yield the reddish-orange, fatty roe. The males have a pointy abdomen, have more meat than females, and are best in early autumn, around September. Females have a round abdomen with more gooey roe and are best enjoyed around November. Both are creamy and decadent, though many diners have a personal preference.
There are various methods for extracting the eggs, but the crabs must be laboriously peeled and each morsel savoured. In China and Hong Kong, where meals are often rushed, diners meticulously pry open the front of the shell, remove the inedible lungs and heart, then crack the body in half to scoop out the golden bounty. After this, they devour the sweet white flesh of the body and legs.
Practiced crab-eaters have created an art form, deshelling then re-assembling the as if the crab is whole again, using just a pair of chopsticks and scissors.
Purists enjoy the crabs simply steamed and dipped in vinegar. They are best cooked and consumed at home, but ensure to steam upside down lest (god forbid) the roe drips out.
Hairy crab seasonal menus are also widely available at Shanghainese restaurants for the less skilled, and because some prefer the variety of dishes. Items like crab roe steamed tofu or crab roe dao miu are popular, as well as the super luxurious crab roe xiao long bao dumplings. These menus range from higher end to mid-range, depending on the establishment and supposed quality of the crab served.
The hairy crab roe is considered a ‘cool’ food by Chinese tradition and should be paired with warming foods. Hua diao yellow wine and ginger tea should do the trick.