Hairy crabs and other crackers
Feasting on the popular crab is a mid-autumn tradition. But other species are available year round, so get cracking, writes Vanessa Yung
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Cracking into hairy crabs is one of my family's autumn rituals. My uncle always goes to his favourite shop to buy a huge basket of crabs - enough to give each of the 20 family members at least two each.
After a brief scrub with a toothbrush, they are steamed upside down (to stop the roe leaking out) and topped with a perilla leaf. The mint is said to remove what traditional Chinese medicine calls the dampness of the lake crawlers. And despite them still being hot enough to burn our hands, we just can't wait to pry them open and eat all the rich egg-yolk like roe from a female crab or the creamy gel-like transparent roe from a male crab, before tucking in to the hairy legs. ("Roe" from a male crab is actually sperm.)
The room is always quiet, except for the sound of us breaking the shells and extracting the meat from the legs.
Many species of crab are available at different times of the year, so the crustacean can be enjoyed year round. Chef Li Shu-tim of the Grand Hyatt's One Harbour Road has devised a menu to showcase many of the varieties now available in Hong Kong.
Other than hairy crab meat dishes - including one that is paired with deep-fried cod fillet for its light taste and smooth texture - red, green and spotted crab all receive different treatments at Li's hands.
"Crab congee is a very popular dish on the mainland, but I make it a bit differently here. Rather than putting the whole crab with shell into the congee, I steam the crab and use the juice to make the congee. I remove the meat and the roe from the crab to put into the congee so that it has all the flavours mixed together," says Li.
"Spotted crab - which Chiu Chow people like to eat cold - is quite salty on its own. So we steam it with a sweet and sour plum sauce for balance.
"For green crab, we braise it with butter, garlic and a generous amount of black pepper for a spicy tang. The meat shrinks while braising. That's why we use green crab for this dish as it's the meatiest."
Kanizen in Wan Chai is offering some Japanese treats. Unable to find the fresh, cold-water Japanese crabs he adores in Hong Kong, owner Timothy Lau Shing-fai opened a restaurant two years ago that specialises in the delicacy. It is equipped with large tanks that can hold 200 crabs at the ideal temperature. No pre-ordering is needed, and all crabs are selected live before cooking.
The three kinds of crabs on offer - horsehair, matsuba and taraba - are flown in live three or four times each week from Hokkaido to ensure freshness.
"Taraba crab has the most meat and allows for a wide range of cooking, including grilling, sashimi, tempura and shabu shabu," says Lau.
"Horsehair crab is the sweetest and has the most roe, so we usually steam it or use it for shabu shabu. It has less meat, though, so can't be grilled or used for tempura or sashimi. Matsuba meat has a lighter taste, so steaming and sashimi work best."
Kanizen is offering a dinner set for the season which allows customers to try all three crabs at one sitting. The menu features matsuba crab sashimi, grilled taraba crab legs and shabu shabu, a winter dish.
"We suggest dipping tempura crab in green-tea salt. And we mix our own vinegar to go with our crab. It's not as sour as conventional ones, which will overpower the flavour of the crabs. Places that serve frozen crabs use very sour vinegar to mask fishy smells," says Lau. "Dishes such as the crab sashimi or shabu shabu require very fresh crab. You can tell whether it's fresh or not right away - there's no faking it."
Kanizen plans to add crab kaiseki to its menu for a more refined dining experience. Lau suggests pairing spicy sake with grilled crab or tempura, and lighter ones with sashimi or shabu shabu so they don't overwhelm the dishes.
Other species such as Alaskan king crab have become a common sight at hotel buffets. For most Hongkongers, however, mid-autumn means choosing and cooking their own hairy crabs, known as mitten crabs in other parts of the world. But what should people look for when buying fresh hairy crabs?
Chef Chan Kwok-keung of Dong Lai Shun at the Royal Garden Hotel says a good crab is firm to the touch and looks plump, which shows it has lots of flesh. It should look alert when you touch its body. Its belly should not be dirty, which suggests the bottom of the lake where it was caught was clean, but not so white that it raises suspicions the crab has been bleached, which some unscrupulous traders have been known to do. Also, male crabs have a bell-shaped belly and females a round one.
However, if guessing the sex of crabs is not your thing, there are plenty of innovative offerings from restaurants this year.
Chef Lee Man-sing and food and beverage manager Sammy Wu of Man Wah at the Mandarin Oriental went to Jiangsu province to select crabs for this season. They come from a private farm belonging to Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace Restaurant at Lake Tai Hu. Lee says that because autumn arrived early this year, the crabs have spent longer in cooler water, prompting them to eat more and fatten up for the winter. A fat crab is a high-quality one.
"We also tried many different dishes from Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou. One of the dishes was sautéed hairy crab with salted fish - an interesting combination we got to know in Hangzhou that tastes so good we are recreating it at Man Wah," says Lee.
"We picked salty fish that are not so savoury - we only want their strong fragrance as it brings out the crab's freshness. And we've also added some glutinous rice cakes to absorb all the flavours - some people actually like the rice cakes better than the crab itself. We also use the whole crab - it's lavish."
In another nod to Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace Restaurant, Man Wah is serving a starter made at the Jiangsu restaurant - hairy crab marinated in a sauce containing several Chinese wines. The high alcohol content of liquors such as kao liang (a strong sorghum-based spirit) enhances the crab's fragrance and sweetness. The meat is jelly-like smooth, a pleasant contrast to the usual texture of cooked meat.
Man Wah's crabmeat pastry tart served straight from the oven is pleasingly rich - thanks to a well-made puff pastry case and the Parmesan cheese added to the top for richness and a savoury tang.
Like last year, Man Wah has flown in two kitchen staff from the Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace Restaurant to dress its steamed hairy crabs, which they can do in less than three minutes. Watching the skilful chefs in action is an education in itself, as they explain which parts of the crab are inedible - the star-shaped heart, the gills and stomach. They have also trained the staff at Man Wah to dress the crabs, hopefully eliminating embarrassing incidents such as leaving bits of shell in the meat.
Chef Chan of Dong Lai Shun says although part of the enjoyment of eating crabs is getting your hands dirty, serving dressed crabs means diners are free of the mess and it allows chefs to be more creative. Chan's method involves picking crabmeat out of a steamed crab before cooking it on a low heat with garlic, ginger, sesame oil, ground white pepper, chicken powder and sugar. The mixture can then be used as a base to create a variety of dishes.
Chan has come up with a range of new dishes this year; highlights include steamed hairy crabmeat with egg white and beer in young coconut, steamed chicken with crabmeat and shrimp paste, and deep-fried snake and crab roe served on a bed of crispy egg noodles.
The secret to the great flavours, Chan says, is the home-made crab oil added to his dishes. "It is made with 40 smaller crabs weighing about 160 grams each, ginger, shallots, scallions and vegetable oil, which are simmered for about three hours until the oil becomes golden brown with the roe diffusing through the whole pot," says Chan. "It is the juice of the crabs and a few drops of it adds intensity to a dish and brings out all its flavours."
Jacky Chan Kwok-leung of Tsui Hang Village in Tsim Sha Tsui has also given a new spin to traditional dishes, including steamed egg white topped with hairy crab roe and deep-fried wheat buns served with hairy crab roe.
"The amount of cholesterol in hairy crabs can be quite high, so adding wheat germ to the usually plain buns makes the dish healthier and adds a chewy bite," he says.
And all chefs remind people to down a cup of ginger tea, said to expel the dampness of the crab just like the perilla leaf, to wrap up the meal.