Hairy crab season comes but once a year. Every autumn, between the months of September and November, makeshift crab restaurants fashioned from old tarp, plastic stools and bamboo rods, sprout up across Shanghai. They exist to serve one dish and one dish only, the celebrated Chinese hairy crab (or dazha xie), a spiky crustacean whose roe – rich, mustard-coloured and creamy – has been scoffed since imperial times.
Hairy crab, also known as Mitten crab, is a medium-sized burrowing species named for its furry claws. It’s native to the coastal estuaries of eastern Asia, from Korea in the north to the south of China. According to locals, the crabmeat is believed to have a cooling (or “˜yin’) effect on the body.
As part of the annual feeding frenzy, hungry crowds descend on Shanghai from the surrounding provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu. The most determined crab fans will head straight to the source, Yangcheng Lake, which lies about 90 km outside of the city. Each year, the nearby settlement of Bacheng transforms from a sleepy market town into a sprawling mass of crab farms, street-side hawkers and car-parking areas turned makeshift markets for “˜floating’ restaurants.
For the uninitiated, Chinese hairy crab is traditionally eaten steamed, on its own, and washed down with Huang Jiu (or Yellow Wine), a type of distilled grain liquor that averages just under 20 per cent proof. (“˜Shaoxing’ wine is a good brand to try).
Getting into the little blighters can be a challenge. Some restaurants will ask if you would like yours pre-prepared, the best option for everyone but the most delicate surgeons. Female crabs are preferred on the whole, as they’re heavier and contain more roe. Price-wise, crabs cost upwards of 800 RMB, or roughly £86, per kilogram.
For a more sanitized experience, head into Shanghai’s city centre. Most restaurants will have a crab sign outside. If you can stomach the price, then Xin Guang Jiu Jia is one of the best of the high-end dining options, with crab featuring in every single dish. Another Shanghai institution is the Din Tai Fung’s crab xiaolongbao, traditional Shanghainese soup dumplings filled with boiling crab. Xiaolongbao – or little dragon dumplings – are another local delicacy, so it’s a natural match.
Compared to the downtown restaurants, the lakeside offerings may seem basic, grubby even, but on price and freshness of produce, they can’t be beaten.
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Written by Charlotte Middlehurst