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We share everything there is to know about responsible hairy crab enjoyment

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.

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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.

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The Crabs Must Be Fully Cooked

Hairy crabs inhabit rivers and lakes, which may be prone to growth of parasites and the effects of pollution. Crabs must be steamed until their shells turn red and the flesh turns white before consumption, as the heat will kill any remaining parasites in the crabs.

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Enjoy Crabs In Moderation

Hairy crab meat and roe are high in vitamins A and B, as well as being rich in protein, calcium, and iron. The seasonal delicacy, however, is also extremely high in fat and cholesterol. While it may be tempting to buy as many as you can to enjoy at home, it is best to enjoy them responsibly, and sparingly—we recommend no more than one large crab (six-taels in weight, or 225 grams per crab) per person for a meal.

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Balance Is Key

According to traditional Chinese medicine, our bodies, like all foods, are categorised as ‘warm’ and ‘cool’, and each individual can balance their health by eating a diverse range of food and avoiding ingredients that throw their warmth or coolness off balance. An excessive level of ‘coolness’ will increase the likelihood of irregular bowel movements and dizziness. Hairy crabs are naturally cool, which is why they are often served with heating ingredients such as ginger and purple shiso leaves—they’re usually added during the steaming process of hairy crabs to help balance out the excessive coolness of fresh hairy crabs.

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Choose Beverages Wisely

To further neutralise the ‘cool’ nature of hairy crabs, crab lovers in the know will often sip warmed Huadiao wine, a fortified wine similar to sherry or the French vin jaune. Avoid chilled beverages such as beer. An alcohol-free option is ginger tea made with ginger and brown sugar.

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Deadly Food Pairings To Take Note Of

Along with avoiding cooling beverages during hairy crab consumption, many believe that there is one particular ingredient, when consumed with hairy crabs, that may cause life-threatening consequences. The persimmon, a sweet, autumnal fruit, should be avoided in consumption with hairy crab because persimmons contain high levels of tannins, which is said to coagulate with the rich proteins in hairy crabs to form tannic acid protein and cause disruption to stomach movements, induce vomit and indigestion.

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Armed with a full understanding of hairy crabs and how to enjoy them wisely and responsibly, these freshwater delicacies are a fantastic treat which can only be enjoyed at the peak harvest. And once they’ve mastered the basics, the next step for a seasoned hairy crab lovers would be to reassemble the original shape of the crab after taking out the meat from each part, which would require tackling the crab without breaking too much of their shell. How’s that for a hairy challenge? 

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