As I write, we're deep into the hairy crab season. Though available year-round (mostly in Shanghainese restaurants), they are at their best from mid-September until the end of December. Also called mitten crabs, their names are derived from the long, fine hairs that cover their claws.
Female crabs are usually eaten at the start of the season, when their rich roe, which turns red and firm when cooked, is more abundant. Male crabs are prized for their "male roe", which stays soft and gooey even when cooked. You can tell the gender by turning the crabs upside down: the female has a wide, bell-shaped underbelly, while the male's is slender and pointed.
The best crabs are said to come from Yangcheng Lake, in Jiangsu province, but far more supposed Yangcheng crabs are sold than the lake could possibly support. There's a huge market for faux Yangcheng crabs and they bear the same stamps, laser etchings and tags as do the genuine ones.
Buy the crabs from a trusted vendor. If you don't know one, ask friends for an introduction.
A meal of steamed hairy crab is something I'd far rather enjoy at home than in a restaur-ant (although dishes containing hairy crab where the meat and roe have been labori-ously extracted are something I'll leave to the experts).
For one thing, it's much cheaper to buy the crabs from a vendor (where they're already expensive) than to pay even more at a restaurant. They're also easy to prepare and make for a convivial meal, as everyone is forced to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty - not something you can do in a formal setting.
Larger crabs fetch much higher prices than smaller ones because they have a lot more roe. The vendor will sell everything you need for a hairy crab meal: the dried perilla leaves and fresh ginger that are steamed with the crabs; vinegar, which, when mixed with chopped fresh ginger, is used as a dipping sauce; the rice wine that you heat in its flask in a bain-marie and sip along with the crabs; and dried sour plums to flavour the rice wine.
You should also serve ginger tea - made by boiling a large quantity of chopped ginger in water and sweetening it with brown sugar. The ginger warms the body - counterbalancing the cooling effect of the crab, according to traditional Chinese medicine.
To prepare the crabs, scrub them under running water, but leave them in their bindings. Lay the dried perilla leaves on a plate and put the crabs belly-side up on top (this way, the roe stays inside rather than spilling out). Lay a slice of ginger on each crab, then steam them for 15 to 20 minutes, depending on the size (ask the vendor for advice on this). Two or three hairy crabs are not enough to make a meal. So, after a first course of crab, serve a few Chinese dishes to eat with white rice. I like to serve some type of stir-fried bitter vegetable (such as mustard greens or small Thai cabbages) to cleanse the palate after the richness of the crab.
Truc (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.