The hairy crab season is shaping up to deliver especially plump delicacies this year, with top conditions at a prime breeding area on the mainland and Hong Kong suppliers working overtime to satisfy local palates.
Yesterday marked the official start of the crab harvest from Jiangsu province's famed Yangcheng Lake. Suppliers in Hong Kong, however, have been selling shipments from the rival Lake Tai for the past two weeks.
'We have customers call in for a few basketfuls of crabs to be shipped back to Indonesia or Singapore,' said Chan Chung, owner of Causeway Bay outlet Chung Kee. Chan said employees at Lake Tai hand-picked the crabs each day and shipped them in for sale starting at 10am.
He said most customers were from Hong Kong and business was expected to be as good as or even better than last year.
Jimmy Chan Siu-long, from the nearby Wong Tai Kee shop, said they could sell up to 600 catties, or 360 kilograms, of crabs daily in the peak season of October and November.
Customers prepared to wait for the Yangcheng harvest are bound to be rewarded. Favourable conditions on the fan-shaped lake, northeast of Suzhou, during the spring drought boosted the crabs' early growth.
'This year's crabs are a great improvement on last year's. On average they are about 20 per cent bigger,' said Shi Yongxing, owner of a village crab farm. 'We could see early on that this might be a good season.'
But the record drought has been devastating for crab farmers elsewhere, particularly at Poyang Lake in Jiangxi province. The poor harvest eased competition and allowed Yangcheng growers to raise prices by up to 20 per cent.
'We have been getting calls every day,' said the manager of Huang Family Hairy Crabs, Huang Xiong. 'Customers are desperate to find out when they can buy hairy crabs, and they especially want to get hold of Yangcheng Lake crabs.
'We are under a lot of pressure to start selling the crabs as early as possible. But most of the crabs are not fully mature yet, and all we can do is hunt some out that are almost ready in order to satisfy the demand.'
The local trade body, the Suzhou Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association, designated yesterday as the start of the harvest. But both farmers and sellers agreed this was too early. In Qingshui on Thursday, Shi said he did not expect his crabs to be ready for at least another 20 days.
He said the crabs were just now shedding their shells for the fourth and final time. 'It will be almost mid-October before the crabs are at their best.'
With demand high, imposters are rife. The lake's annual yield of crabs is just 1,500 tonnes, according to the trade association, yet upwards of 100,000 tonnes of 'Yangcheng' crabs are sold on the market.
One favourite trick is to ship in live crabs from other lakes, place them in cages in Yangcheng Lake and then brand them as the local product.
'It happens a lot,' Shi said. 'The demand is there and everyone knows we really can't meet it.'
The popularity of Yangcheng crabs owes much to the lake's supposedly pristine waters. But development along the Yangtze River Delta is encroaching. Growers say they have noticed a steep decline in water quality over the past decade. 'When I was young, the water in the lake was clear ... It was delicious to drink as well; it tasted sweet,' Shi said. 'Now, the water is so murky that even on a good day you can't see the bottom just a few metres from the shore.'