The best Shanghai hairy crabs, the secret to farming them and the best ways to cook them
For the crab farmers of Yangcheng Lake in China’s Jiangsu province, it’s the excellent water quality there that makes their crustaceans the best
Every September, Yao Zhigang enters the most hectic period of the year – the hairy crab season. It is a month until the peak harvesting season for hairy crabs, but orders from around China have already flooded in.
He is one of several dozen crab farmers based on the northeastern shore of Yangcheng Lake, a freshwater lake in Jiangsu province, eastern China, that is famed for its Chinese mitten crabs.
Yao is the second generation of a family whose business is crab farming, and he began helping his parents with different chores when he was a child. Now in his thirties, Yao, whose main job is in urban management, takes care of a farm that produces around 60,000 crabs each year.
Customers want to get a first taste of the delicacy – its creamy roe, in particular – as early as in September during celebrations for the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Luckily for the crab farmers, their worst nightmare – typhoons – did not occur this year. “When it rains heavily, sea levels rise above the fence and crabs would escape,” says Yao.
In September, Yao moved temporarily from his flat in a village nearby to a tiny wooden shack on the lake. There he spends the autumn nights keeping watch over his farm, to stop the crabs being stolen.
During the day, he feeds the crustaceans a mixed diet of freshwater snails, fish and corn – not too much, as the excess may cause the water to become muddy, and not too little so the crabs don’t starve. Spare corn goes to the swans he keeps as guard pets.
“You cannot detect people, who row over on boats in the silence of the night. But swans make noise if they see strangers,” says Yao.
The juvenile crabs are released into the lake in March. In the following months they shed their shells, a process known as moulting, six to seven times to reach maturity. At this stage they have the characteristic hairs on their claws, for which they are named.
“If the hairs have grown around the entire claw, then it will not moult again. Mature crabs also have darker hair,” says Yao. Another tip for detecting a mature crab is to pinch its legs to test for their hardness. Crabs that have only recently moulted will have a softer shell.
While crabs are raised in various lakes in China, including the neighbouring Taihu Lake and Gucheng Lake, they cannot compare to the fame of Yangcheng Lake crabs, which are widely considered to have the better taste – something Yao attributes to the “excellent water quality” of the lake.
Such is their appeal that some farmers reportedly take crabs harvested from other places and give them a quick dip in Yangcheng Lake. They then pass them off as genuine Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs to fetch a higher price – a counterfeit product known locally as “shower crabs”.
The practice is quite common. “There are way more so-called Yangcheng Lake crabs on the market than the number of crabs that the lake can produce, which is actually very limited in quantity,” says Yao.
According to the seasoned crab farmer, counterfeits can be distinguished from authentic Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs, whose significant features are their green shell, white belly, golden legs and yellow hair. In addition, because of the lake’s rocky bottom and rougher conditions, they usually would not have mud on their shells, and they tend to be stronger and more lively.
The hairy crab industry has been hit by contamination scandals in past years – samples of crabs from farms in China were found by Hong Kong authorities to have excessive levels of carcinogens such as dioxin in 2016 – but business is better than ever for Yao.
In the old days, after collecting the crabs from traps after sundown, Yao had to bring them to a seafood market in the middle of the night, where they would then be sold to exporters. The layers of middlemen involved ate into farmers’ profits.
This year, Yao opened a restaurant called Xian Xie Fang near the lake, where customers can try the crabs fresh out of the water and buy some directly. With the convenience of an extensive delivery network in China, he can also now take orders online and mail them directly to clients.
Crabs harvested are sorted according to their weight (three to five taels; 115 to 190 grams) and sex (females generally fetch a higher price). Behind the restaurant, Yao and his staff skilfully tie up the crabs’ claws with string and pack them in styrofoam boxes.
At the Central Hotel Shanghai, executive chef Wang Hao examines the most recent batch of hairy crabs that the hotel has imported from a farm on Yangcheng Lake. He offers an important tip for picking the best ones: “Its shell should be shiny even after you dry it.”
The hotel, better known in Chinese as Wang Bao He, started as a restaurant during the Qing dynasty and has served crabs for more than two centuries. Its crab banquets are available starting in October and a handful of staff work diligently inside the kitchen to extract the roe and meat from several hundred crabs each day.
There is no fixed menu for the banquet; the chef recommends dishes according to your budget and the size of your party.
Rather than steaming the crabs, Wang prefers boiling them to retain the texture and smoothness of the meat. The boiled crab is served with all the roe and meat extracted and a different vinegar for each part. Other must-try dishes include the fried crab spawn, sautéed asparagus with crab leg meat and xiao long bao (dumplings) with crab roe filling.
To wrap up the meal, Wang recommends huangjiu (yellow wine) or ginger tea, which can balance the cooling nature of the crabs.
Central Hotel Shanghai
555 Jiujiang Road, Huangpu Qu, Shanghai, tel: +86 5396 5000
Xian Xie Fang
167 Hu Bin Bei Lu, Bachengzhen, Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, tel: +86 137 7313 8398