It’s that time of year in Shanghai, from September to December, for hairy crab. Having greatly enjoyed humongous Sri Lankan crabs when I lived in Singapore, these tiny (and frankly ugly) crustaceans took some getting used to. Because the crabs are so small and prickly – imagine a body the size of a fist, and legs like cacti – it takes some serious effort to pick them clean. But nobody seems to mind as the reward of sweet, delicate flesh and creamy roe makes it all worthwhile.
Walking down the street in Shanghai, it can feel a bit like a crab parade. Many sellers proudly put the live string-tied critters on display in the street hoping to catch impulse buyers on their way home from work. Actually the crab makes for a quick and delicious dinner at around 35RMB per crab (US$5.50), although for the average person on the street, this is not really considered super cheap .
A Shanghainese local gave me some tips on buying the best crab. Because they must be alive, you need to look for responsive eyes, and then of course the bigger the better. Fat bellies and fat legs are ideal. At the beginning of the season the lot is mostly female and thus smaller, so some choose to wait until early November when the male crabs come in. But it is worth noting that the females generally have more roe.
And home cooking these crabs is easy. First, you must clean them well – a toothbrush is a good tool to use in this instance. Next, just steam in the wok for about 20 minutes with a couple of perilla leaves and you are done. If you wish to get creative, you can add some ginger or fresh herbs in the wok while steaming to scent the crab. Then, the usual way to enjoy them is to dip into a mixture of vinegar and fresh ginger.
However, if you are more like me and prefer to enjoy your crab done in various different preparations, going to one of the famous Shanghai crab restaurants is the way to go. From simple crab soup and sauteed crab roe to the more complex steamed crab egg custard and bean curd stuffed with crab, there are many ways to savour this prickly delicacy. And of course, you can get the steamed classic – at most restaurants for only a small fee, the waiters will clean and prepare the crab for you to eat with minimal effort.
When in Shanghai, I have a couple of favorite places to enjoy hairy crab. So if you find yourself in Shanghai, I strongly suggest sampling this culinary highlight of the year.
Ling Long Ge
2F No.951 Hongxu Road, near West Yan‘an Road
Telephone: +86 21 3207 1177
Note: here there is little English spoken here, so better to go with a Mandarin-speaking friend
375 Zhening Lu, near Yuyuan Lu
Telephone: +86 21 5239 7878
Note: English is spoken here