ONE for the ROE

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2002, 12:00am

WHEN THE TEMPERATURE suddenly drops from 30 to 22 degrees Celsius, as it did recently, the change can give the impression it is chilly. When I mentioned how cold I was to a friend in Manhattan, she laughed, pointing out that it was 15 degrees Celsius in New York - during the day. At night it drops to seven degrees Celsius. I tried to explain the lack of central heating in Hong Kong, but she wasn't buying it.

Yet it does feel cold to me, which explains why my culinary repertoire is moving from fast stir-fries and pasta dishes to warming winter foods such as soups and stews. I want dishes that steam up the kitchen and warm my tiny flat.

One meal I try to enjoy at least once each winter is hairy crab. They're much cheaper if you prepare them at home, but still make for an expensive meal. Unless you have a bottomless bank account, let your guests contribute to the cost of the crabs according to how many they eat.

A hairy crab dinner should be served in two parts. The first part should focus solely on the crabs. The females have the firmer roe, while that in the males is creamier and softer. Look at the underside of the crabs to check - the males have a long, pointy loose shell at the base, while the shells on the females are rounder.

Hairy crabs range in price from less than $100 to more than $300 each. The smaller ones won't have much roe and are a bother to deal with; I tend to buy crabs that cost about $200. Ask your guests beforehand how many crabs they'll want - count on at least two each, more for a really indulgent dinner. The vendor will often give a discount for purchases of a half-basket of 24 or a basket of 48. Buy the crabs from a vendor with a high turnover - they will be fresher. The crabs should be alive - make sure they're blowing bubbles from their mouths. Pick ones that are heavy for their size.

The vendor will also sell rice wine, sweet dried plums, fresh ginger, rock sugar and rich, brown Shanghainese vinegar. To serve your guests properly, each person will need a plate, tea cup, small cup for rice wine and dipping dish. They can share the crab picks and scissors for cutting the claws.

Scrub the crabs under running water while you heat the water for steaming. Place the crabs belly side up - this is important because it prevents the rich, orange roe from leaking out - in a heat-proof dish and place over boiling water in the steamer. Steam over high heat for 15-20 minutes. While the crabs are cooking, chop lots of ginger and simmer it in a pot of water for ginger tea. It should taste strongly of ginger because this helps to balance the cooling effect of the crabs. Add enough rock sugar to make the tea palatable. Pour the rice wine into a heat-proof beaker and gently heat in a pan of simmering water (put a small piece of cloth beneath the beaker so it doesn't come into direct contact with the base of the pan). Put the dried plums in a serving dish for guests to help themselves - the rice wine tastes much better when flavoured with the plums but not everybody likes it this way. Finely shred some ginger and add to small dipping dishes filled with the brown vinegar.

Serve the crabs piping hot. Dip the meat and roe into the vinegar and take frequent sips of the plum-infused rice wine. Finish this part of the meal with ginger tea.

After such a rich and creamy starter, you'll want clean and sharp dishes, served with plenty of steamed rice, of course. Keep things simple and make only a few dishes. Steamed chicken with preserved sausages (laap cheung) and mushrooms is one of my favourites. Marinate bite-sized chicken pieces in soy sauce, rice wine, a little salt and a sprinkling of sugar, ground pepper, and some cornstarch. Soak the dried mushrooms in warm water for about 10 minutes or until they are soft then squeeze out any excess water and slice. Soak dried lily bulbs (gum jum) until they are soft and cut off the hard tip. Cut laap cheung or yuen cheung (liver sausages) on the diagonal. Toss everything together and put in a heat-proof dish. As soon as the last platter of crabs is finished steaming, put in the dish of chicken and steam over high heat for 20-30 minutes.

A good dish to go with this is stir-fried sliced pork with preserved Sichuan radish (cha choi). Rinse off the red chilli paste from the outside of the vegetable, then pat dry. Cut into slices and then julienne. Marinate sliced pork in soy sauce, rice wine, salt, sugar, ground pepper and cornstarch. Heat the wok and add oil, then add sliced ginger and a couple cloves of lightly crushed garlic and fry until they are fragrant. Add the pork and cook until it loses its pink colour, then add the preserved vegetable. Stir in about 1/4 cup of water, cover with the lid and simmer for about five minutes, or until the pork is cooked. Just before removing from the heat drizzle in a little sesame oil and sprinkle with minced spring onions.

For a vegetable, dau miu (pea shoots), which are in season now, are perfect. Heat a wok and add oil. Add sliced ginger and crushed garlic, then add the washed and dried dau miu and sprinkle with salt. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly, for about 30 seconds then drizzle in a little soy sauce and add about 1/3 cup of chicken broth. Cover and simmer until the dau miu is crisp-tender. Drizzle with sesame oil and serve.