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Sunday October 31, 2010

Savouring hairy crabs

You may have heard of the Shanghainese hairy crabs or Chinese mitten crabs, so called because of the furry growth on their pincers and legs, but not many Malaysian diners would be familiar with their exquisite taste.

IN Shanghainese cuisine, steamed hairy crabs are a seasonal delicacy to be savoured in autumn and winter, starting around late September.

Bite me: Local celebrities who love hairy crabs include violinist Daniel Lau (left) and actor-model Alan Yun.

But the best specimens are harvested from two famous lakes – Lake Tai and Lake Yangcheng – in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, from September till December. Due to the relative proximity of the two lakes to Shanghai, the crabs are identified or “branded” with the name of the city.

With the growing affluence of consumers in Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and other major Chinese cities as well as increasing demand from restaurants around the world – including South-East Asia – there are “fake” hairy crabs in the market. They resemble the mitten crabs but without the sought-after creamy-flavoured roe.

“The hairy crab season ends precisely by Dec 24 of each year,” said Henry Yip Chun Hoong, chief executive officer of the Dragon-i restaurant chain who recently led a media team to Suzhou to report on the crab farms located in Lake Tai and Lake Yangcheng.

Especially for you: Dragon-i chief executive officer Henry Yip flanked by his Cantonese cuisine chef Yim Yu King (left) and Shanghainese cuisine chef Man Fong Lam who created the special hairy crab menus.

“The price of a hairy crab weighing an average of 180g is RM68 and more than half of the cost goes to our transport cost,” said Yip during a recent tasting session at his Dragon-i Signature restaurant at Pavilion Kuala Lumpur mall.

The crabs are flown in weekly from a supplier who is a member of the government-controlled aquaculture cooperatives at both lakes.

Naturally, Yip who introduced the hairy crab delicacy to his restaurants in 2008 wanted the public to know that he only imports the real deal.

Egg with kick: For seasoned hairy crabs eaters, the orange-coloured roe is the thing to savour.

Accompanied by his group executive chefs Man Fong Lam (Shanghainese cuisine) and Yim Yu King (Cantonese cuisine) as well as group dim sum chef Zhao Hui Sheng, Yip wanted the media representatives to see for themselves how the crabs were reared, harvested, cooked and eaten.

Our group of eight journalists couldn’t wait for the eating part but first we had to visit the two lakes and meet with representatives from the local cooperatives that produce the sought-after crabs.

At both freshwater lakes, vast swathes of netting material were strung across poles sunk to the bottom that averages a depth of 2m to rear the delicious crustaceans. At Lake Tai, the farm we visited even had a natural alarm system with a flock of geese standing guard to deter poachers.

According to veteran hairy crab supplier Zhang Wei Wen from the Guangzhou Southern Crab Fishery Company – who sources his crabs from Lake Tai – it takes about two years for the crustaceans to be ready for the table. Known in Cantonese as tai jap hai, the crabs are also highly prized in Hong Kong.

Crab fry are sourced from the mouth of the Yangtze River every March and transferred to the lake edge, where they are confined to pens and fed with maize and seaweed as well as snails that grow naturally there. The young crabs hibernate in the winter months by burrowing into the lake bed.

Part of a Suzhou style banquet that includes steamed hairy crabs (not in the picture). In the middle is a plate of crunchingly fresh dates.

By April, they are transferred to the middle of the lake in larger pens for the maturing process. The temperature level of the lake and other environmental conditions as well as the strictly regulated food source allow the crabs to fatten up to the ideal weight – naturally.

“Lake Tai is fed by the mountain streams that bring rich nutrients. The local government is very strict on the water quality of the lake and no one is allowed to use any form of feed that is not approved. Otherwise, the lake will be contaminated. Every farm here and in the more famous Lake Yangcheng is licensed and regulated,” said Zhang, who was originally from Hong Kong in the seafood business.

As for identifying an authentic hairy crab, Zhang stipulated that it should have a shiny back with an oily-looking texture. Underneath, it should be ivory-coloured and “ripe” with roe. The rear portion of the crab must look like it is almost bursting. When it is held, it should feel heavy, not light-weight.

Female crabs are best eaten within the September to October period and male crabs within October and November due to the ideal quality of the roe. Male crabs have pointed bellies that resemble a triangular design. The females have an oval-shaped belly. The males have more hair on their mitten-like pincers, hence the name.

At Lake Yangcheng, we met up with Lin Ze Hua, president of the Jiangsu Yangchenghu Mitten Crab Co Ltd who said demand is getting stronger each year as more food lovers learn of the unique taste of the hairy crabs.

But the local authorities do not simply allow anyone to just open up a farm here. In fact, more restrictions have been imposed to ensure greater protection of the lake environment. That could only mean costlier crabs.

Strings of delight: The straws that bind the hairy crabs impart a pleasant and fresh herbal flavour to the tasty crustaceans.

According to Zhang, Lake Yangcheng has a total surface area equivalent to 557,000sq m allocated to crab farming while the much larger Lake Tai has 1.7mil sq m.

Just what’s so special about the taste of Shanghainese hairy crabs?

While Zhang conceded that the so-called special tools to eat hairy crab, comprising Chinese scissors, tweezers, and other fanciful instruments, are just accessories to enhance the dining experience, the straws to bind the crabs for steaming really do impart a fragrant taste to the crab meat.

By the way, the best way to cook such crabs is by steaming.

The crabs are categorised and sold by weight according to the Chinese weights and measures system.

One liang or Chinese ounce is equivalent to 38g. The exact time to steam a crab is 15 minutes for three liang (114g); 20 minutes for four liang (152g); and 25 minutes for five liang (190g).

The whole aim of eating hairy crab is to savour the brilliant, reddish-orange roe which has a delicate, creamy flavour that lingers.

The meat is just as “sweet” and when dipped in a black vinegar sauce combined with sugar and shredded ginger, your taste buds will just pop. And when you follow it up with a shot glass of 20-year-old hua diao jiu or Chinese rice wine flavoured with a dried sour plum, you will be giddy with delight – from the flavour not the alcohol!

Initially, at the start of the hairy crab promotion at Dragon-i restaurants in mid-October, each crab which weighs between 180g and 200g was sold at the a la carte price of RM80 but the price has since been reduced.

“We have reduced the price to RM68 each due to bigger volume purchase; we are targeting the mid-income group of customers so we cannot be expensive. We are the only restaurant group to purchase direct from our Lake Tai supplier instead of going through a middleman. Besides, I want to achieve my sales target of two tonnes this season,” said Yip.

Crab lovers who find 180g a little too small to their liking can place advance orders for male hairy crabs weighing up to 250g each at certain Dragon-i outlets.

“We only have the bigger male crab of up to 250g at the Pavilion KL and Queensbay Mall and the price is RM88 each, which I think is the cheapest in the market. However, the bigger crab specimens are limited due to the huge demand in China itself,” Yip said.

A hairy crab set menu created by chef Man Fong Lam – who is from Jiangsu – is also available while the crabs are in season.

Priced at RM138++ per person with a minimum of two diners, the menu offers Shanghainese meat dumplings with hairy crab roe; double-boiled superior chicken soup with fish maw and bamboo pith; Suzhou style braised pork belly with bun; sauteed vegetables with hair crab roe; Yangzhou fried rice; and sesame dumplings with ginger syrup. And, of course, each diner will get a freshly steamed hairy crab. There’s also a RM537++ menu for four diners.

But the creme de la creme moment of the whole hairy crab tasting experience must surely be savouring the Shanghai steamed dumpling or xiao long bao topped with hairy crab roe.

That’s probably the easiest way to eat hairy crab roe – and that’s precisely the point.

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