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Saturday October 12, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday October 12, 2013 MYT 6:09:54 AM
by julie wong
The most desirable part of the hairy crab is its roe.
The Yangcheng Lake in China is world-famous for producing hairy crabs, and one Malaysian restaurant chain is bringing them to our local tables.
IN the country of the hairy crab, the little critter gets an official flag-off when in season. This year, the season was declared open on Sept 19 in a grand ceremony at the edge of its famous home, Yangcheng Lake, in Jiangsu province in eastern China. The powers that be have decreed that the official hairy crab season starts two days before the Mid-Autumn Festival, making it a fortuitous time for feasting.
During the hairy crab season from mid-September to December, no feast around the Shanghai epicentre is complete without the little fellas. We were in nearby Suzhou, on a hairy crab appreciation mission, no less – there is such a thing. Heading the expedition was Henry Yip, the CEO of the Dragon-i group of restaurants and his two chefs from neighbouring Yangzhou. Yip will tell you that many Malaysians now await the hairy crab season with bated breath as well. He has seen his hairy crab business grow from one ton in 2008, to six tons this year.
“We are the largest importer of hairy crabs in Malaysia,” declared Yip, who started offering the delicacy at his chain of Shanghainese cuisine restaurants five years ago. “At the time, the hairy crabs I could source were small in size, expensive, and had no guarantee.”
Those looking for the best hairy crabs will inevitably find their way to Yangcheng, the most famous of the hairy crab-producing lakes around the Yangtze River delta – the other is the larger Tai Lake.
Until last year, Yip was importing crabs from Tai Lake. This year, he is bringing in the best.
“Yangcheng crabs are sweeter and have better texture and worth the 20% more that I have to pay,” he said. He believes Dragon-i is the only Malaysian restaurant chain offering this as, “you need to order the minimum volume of 100kg each time and consume the crabs within a few days; we can do this as we have many restaurants within the group.”
When it comes to branded hairy crabs, authentication is an issue as fakes swamp the market – after all, we are in China. The unscrupulous try to pass hairy crabs from elsewhere as coming from Yangcheng as the provenance is a guarantee of quality and taste, and command the highest price.
To ensure that he is getting the real deal, Yip gets his crabs from a licensed supplier and visits the facility in the Shajiabang village in the Changshu county of Suzhou, 85km west of Shanghai.
The murky green waters of Yangcheng Lake are placid in the late afternoon sun as we navigate its surface in a crude, motorised boat, hoping for a glimpse of its famous inhabitants. The crabs must be frolicking at the bottom of the lake, rubbing their bellies on the pebbles to get that famous “white belly” look – the sign of a genuine Yangcheng Lake crab – for there is nary a ripple on the water’s surface.
The lake is carved into coveted prime aquaculture plots, which entrepreneurs lease from the local authority. All the farms here are licensed and regulated, and the creatures and waters subjected to regular health and quality inspection.
“The superior water, air and environmental quality of Yangcheng Lake are what contribute to the health and sweet taste of the crabs,” said Zhang Jian Long of Changshu Jin Tang Shi Ltd Co, who supplies the Malaysian restaurant group, and has rights to farm one of the largest areas of the lake. He could also add that chemicals such as antibiotics are prohibited.
The rich aquatic plants and other crab food present in the lake are its unique properties but with intensive and widespread farming, the crabs need to be fed a supplementary diet including corn kernels, wheat, chopped fish, clams and crushed shellfish.
Native to China and Eastern Asia, Eriocheir sinensis, also known as mitten crab, lives mostly in freshwater but needs to return to sea to breed. In the wild, they are found on the eastern coast of China, in rivers and lakes that are connected to the sea, but hairy crabs are now farmed in every province in China.
They have made their way to Europe and America, where they are considered a non-aggressive but invasive species and a pest, doing much damage to dams and embankments, and upsetting the ecosystem. In fact, the hairy crab has made it to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of the world’s worst 100 invasive alien species – which makes it all right to eat them!
Every March, Chinese farmers source the crab larvae from the mouth of the Yangtze River where larval development occurs in brackish water at the confluence of fresh and sea water. They are then transferred to the lake, where they live in netted enclosures, hibernating in the winter months by burrowing into the lake bed.
The crabs reach sexual maturity at around two years when they are roughly palm-sized. This happens in the autumn, when the females are bulging with roe. The crabs from Yangcheng Lake have a dark green carapace, ivory underbelly, and golden hair and claws. The females can be identified by their rounded underbelly, while males have a pointed, V-shaped middle and more leg hair. Males also tend to be larger. The females ripen earlier in the season, in September, and males are available for the table from October. The best time to enjoy hairy crabs is from mid-October onwards.
At Zhang’s farm, crabbers go out in boats and harvest the crabs manually with collapsible net traps. The trap extends out into a long series of “caves” when dropped into the water. Within minutes, the crabs crawl in as they feel safe in the cocoon-like environment – a grave mistake.
The catch is brought to the processing plant where they are tagged before being packed. The tags bear a serial number, the name of the farm and its phone number, and are only issued to licensed farmers by the Suzhou Bureau of Quality and Technical Supervision.
They are distributed at the beginning of each harvest season and change each year to avoid counterfeit. In addition, the crabs need to be certified by the China Entry-Exit Inspection and Quarantine Animal Healthcare Department, and the Hong Kong Food Hygiene Quality Control Department, before being air freighted.
“So Dragon-I customers can rest-assured that they are getting the real Yangcheng hairy crab,” said Yip, who sleeps better at night knowing this. After all, he has gone to great lengths to provide this assurance.
Compared to larger sea crabs, the freshwater crab has a fresher, cleaner taste, with a subtle reminder of the weeds and grass of lakes and rivers. Chefs know that with a great product, you don’t have to do much to create something fabulous. From home kitchens to the best restaurants around the Jiangsu region, the favoured recipe for hairy crab is to simply steam it and enjoy it dipped in a little vinegar accompanied by slices of ginger – in the half dozen restaurants that we visited, that was how hairy crab was celebrated. But not just any vinegar – it must be the other famous product of the Jiangsu region, the elegant and complex Zhenjiang black vinegar.
It’s a debate – and matter of personal choice – whether one prefers the male or female crab. The male is praised for its yellow, creamy roe and more ample meat and the female for its brilliantly red, compact and rich roe, but hardly offers any meat. “You must understand that the hairy crab is primarily sought-after for its roe and not meat,” said Yip, whose personal preference is for the female, which by the way, will set you back another RM30 per crab on top of its menu rate of RM68 for a 180g to 200g crab at Dragon-i restaurants. The female is in greater demand, stock is limited, and the season tapers off earlier in November.
Connoisseurs will also enjoy it with little glasses of Chinese wines – either white or yellow. As the crab is considered a yin food that has a cooling effect on the body, the meal is often finished with a cup of warming ginger tea.
Great deals at Dragon-i
Yangcheng hairy crabs are available at all Dragon-i outlets in Malaysia from now until December. To celebrate its introduction here, the restaurant has launched a value Premium Set. Even in Shanghai, one would not be able to enjoy a six-course meal that includes two Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs for a mere RM178 (RM148 for members*; free instant membership available).
For those who would like to cook the crabs at home, Dragon-i offers a RM198 takeaway gift box of four male crabs (pay for three and get one free), perilla leaves, sliced ginger, a bottle of vinegar, and dry ice to keep everything chilled until you get home.
* Normal price applies on weekend and public holidays and at a minimum of two pax.
Tags / Keywords:
Lifestyle, Food, China, Suzhou, hairy crab, Dragon-i, Yangcheng Lake
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