EVERY OCTOBER, Hongkongers eagerly await the arrival of hairy crab season as if it were Lunar New Year or Christmas. Hairy crabs, also known as Chinese mitten crabs because of the "fur" on their claws, are a speciality of Shanghai and Jiangsu provinces, and are prized for their rich coral (curd-like roe from female crabs, a more liquid "essence" from males).
Traditionally, the crabs are simply steamed with dried perilla leaves and sliced ginger. Each person is given a whole crab to take apart and eat with a dipping sauce of brown vinegar and ginger. For the less ambitious (or lazy), chefs will painstakingly shell the crabs. There are now even factories that bottle crabmeat and coral.
The city's insatiable appetite for hairy crabs has inspired chefs to become more experimental in their use of it. Some of the early creations were easy: the crab coral was mixed with scrambled egg whites, or used in or on top of xiao long bao, the famous Shanghainese pork soup dumplings.
Hong Kong's chefs have come a long way since then. Once exclusive to restaurants serving Shanghainese and Jiangsu cuisine, the hairy crab has scuttled across culinary divides.
Leung Fai-hung, the head chef at Cantonese restaurant Hoi King Heen at the InterContinental Grand Stanford in Tsim Sha Tsui, is well known for his willingness to experiment with dishes.
This year, while the menu includes safe combinations such as hairy crab sauce with braised winter melon, or with steamed egg white and Alaskan crab legs, he has also come up with outré unions, such as baked eggplant with cheese and hairy crab roe.
The dish plays on Hongkongers' love for cheesy baked rice and pasta dishes but transforms it into a more upmarket dish, whereby the eggplant is hollowed out, the flesh cut into batons and both the eggplant shell and sticks are briefly deep-fried to keep their shape and colour. The batons are put back in the hollowed eggplant, topped with a rich hairy crab roe and meat sauce the colour of egg yolks, topped with processed cheese and baked. The result is extremely rich and indulgent, but surprisingly coherent.
Another unconventional dish is pan-fried wagyu cubes served with crab roe sauce. The highly marbled Australian wagyu is tender but not too intense in flavour, which prevents it from overpowering the hairy crab sauce.
The crabs used at Hoi King Heen come from Lake Tai, or Taihu, a large lake on the border of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, arguably the second most famous lake after Yangcheng for hairy crabs.
"Early in the season, we use female crabs, as they mature earlier. Later, around the 10th month of the lunar calendar, we use males," says Wong Sai-bun, sous chef at Hoi King Heen. "We always buy whole crabs and shell them ourselves."
Nothing goes to waste, as the shells are used in making the sauce. "We lightly fry the crab shells, with ginger and spring onions, to extract the oils, which we then add to the sauce to make it richer. It's important to use ginger, because hairy crabs are cooling for the body," Wong says, referring to traditional Chinese medicine guidelines.
At Duddell's, the art-filled restaurant in Shanghai Tang Mansion in Central, executive chef Siu Hin-chi serves ginger tea alongside all his hairy crab dishes for the same reason. "From a flavour point of view, ginger works well with hairy crabs, but it's also for our health," he says.
Duddell's specialises in Cantonese cuisine, but, like chef Leung, Siu has created several innovative hairy crab dishes as well as a full-blown seven-course hairy crab tasting menu. He uses crabs from Yangcheng Lake in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.
Unlike chefs at Hoi King Heen, Siu steers clear of bold flavours for fear of overpowering the crab. "Hairy crab coral is intense in flavour, so it pairs best with lighter tasting ingredients, like white fish, scallops and egg white," he says.
He serves a steamed dumpling filled with garoupa, scallop, shrimp and hairy crab meat, topped with caviar, in a hairy crab coral sauce.
"I took inspiration from the dim sum dumplings we do here, and then thought about how to serve it at dinner. It's common for guests to have their own dishes [rather than sharing], so I decided to serve each dumpling individually," says Siu.
For the last savoury course of the tasting menu, Siu offers hairy crab roe with Inaniwa udon, a regional variety of Japanese noodles that are slightly flat, like linguine, and are known for their fine, dense, smooth texture.
Clean and simple
Hairy crab roe ramen, available at ramen chain Hide-Chan, is another Japanese-inspired creation.
Crab roe and meat are pressed into a small cake, which is dusted lightly with flour then gently pan-fried, which helps it keep its shape as it sits atop a mound of ramen and soup.
"The soup is simple and clean in flavour, because the crab is quite strong," says Lau Wai-yuk, head chef at Hide-Chan. The basis of the soup is kombu (dried Japanese kelp) and katsuoboshi (shavings of dried and smoked skipjack tuna), flavoured with soy sauce, abalone, dried shrimp and shiitake mushrooms. With a limit of 30 bowls a day, savour it slowly.
Where to get hairy crab
Hoi King Heen
B2/F InterContinental Grand Stanford Hong Kong, 70 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui East, tel: 2731 2883
Hairy crab dishes are available until the end of November
Levels 3 & 4 Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central, tel: 2525 9191
Hairy crab dishes and seven-course tasting menu available until the end of November, or while stocks last
UG/F The Loop, 33 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2522 5990
Hairy crab roe ramen available until the end of November
5/F Harbourfront Landmark, 11 Wan Hoi Street, Whampoa, Hung Hom, tel: 3746 2788
Dishes: drunken hairy crab sashimi with huadiao wine and Sichuan pepper; deep-fried hairy crab shell. All available until December 1
Dong Lai Shun
B2/F The Royal Garden, 69 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui East, tel: 2733 2020
Dishes: deep-fried prawn stuffed with hairy crab roe coated with oatmeal; deep-fried Chinese dough stuffed with hairy crab roe and mashed squid. All available until December 10
Shop 1103, 11/F Food Forum, Times Square, 1 Matheson Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2874 8899
Red cherry shrimp and fresh hairy crab cream fried rice wrapped in lotus leaf; taichi-style fresh hairy crab cream with clear noodles and egg white. All available until mid-December