Five things you need to know about Shanghainese cuisine
The lowdown on hairy crabs – why diners eat them, where the best come from, and the best bits – why Shanghainese starters are cold, and the light dishes to counter the heavy and sweet ones
1. Always start a Shanghainese meal with a selection of cold dishes.
These aren’t necessarily fridge-cold; many of them are served at room temperature, and they’re meant to whet the appetite. Some of the most traditional and popular are braised wheat gluten with mushrooms; finely chopped Indian aster with bean curd; vegetarian duck (it’s made with fried bean curd sheets wrapped around vegetables); crispy eel; mashed broad beans flavoured with sesame oil and preserved vegetables, and; drunken pigeon or duck.
2. Hairy crabs (also called mitten crabs) are traditionally eaten in the autumn and winter, with the season usually running from late September until December.
They get their name from the long, hairlike fibres on their claws. These are eaten primarily for their roe, rather than the meat, which is sparse. Female roe is orange and cooks up hard; male “roe” (which is actually the sperm) is pale, soft and gooey.
3. The best hairy crabs are said to come from Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu province.
Producers there keep coming up with new methods to prove that their crabs come from the lake, and to justify the high prices: ID “bracelets” to put on the claws, and laser-printed stamps on their shells, but counterfeiters copy these techniques just as fast.
4. According to traditional Chinese medicine, hairy crabs are said to be cooling.
A hairy crab meal is balanced with warming ingredients: they’re steamed with dried perilla leaves, and ginger tea is drunk at the end of the meal.
5. Shanghainese food is known for its rich, heavy and sweet dishes, but the whole meal doesn’t have to be like that.
In addition to the heavy dishes of braised pork hock or pork belly, order tiny river shrimp cooked with tea leaves (or truffle paste, at some of the more modern restaurants), stir-fried fresh broad beans with tofu skin, and a tureen of wonton soup with chicken.