Every year between October to December is the peak harvest of hairy crabs, the small freshwater crustaceans that thrive along the Yangtze River around Shanghai, mostly concentrated in lakes such as Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu province. Also known as Chinese mitten crabs, these small delicacies are most easily recognised for the furry gauntlets surrounding their claws. Every year crab aficionados keep track of the crabs’ availability and go all-out for feasts featuring these steamed crabs as well as dishes prepared with their meat and roe.
Sold fresh and trussed with wet straw or thin ropes, hairy crabs are highly seasonal and are fantastic enjoyed over dinner with family and friends, where everyone gathers at the table enjoying the creamy crab roe and harvesting sweet flakes of crabmeat from their shells and legs. A Chinese traditional saying of “round abdomen for the ninth month and sharp abdomen for the tenth” indicates the order in which female and male crabs reach their optimum quality for consumption. Female crabs have a round-shape flap on their belly, and they are liveliest with the highest storage of fat earlier in the season. The roe, golden yellow in colour with the consistency of a savoury custard resembling sea urchin, is considered the best among aficionados. The male crab comes into maturation later, and their bellies have a sharp, pointy flap. The ‘roe’, which is white and has a starchy paste-like consistency, is actually crab milt that has a thicker, almost cream-cheese like feeling; however, its flavour is not as strong as shirako, or cod milt.
With much anticipation for hairy crabs and the luxurious dishes incorporating their roe available at the city’s most notable restaurants, here are some pointers that all hairy crab lovers should know in order to enjoy them to the max in the comfort of their own home.
Select Only Fresh, Live Crabs
It sounds basic, but it’s a must to pick the freshest crabs for consumption as histamine is produced by parasites and bacteria that spread the moment the crabs die. One good tip for checking how fresh hairy crabs are before you buy them is to see whether or not they are foaming near the mouth, indicating liveliness.