The secrets behind autumnal delicacy hairy crabs

PHOTO: The Business Times

The calorie-laden, artery-clogging excess of the Mooncake Festival may be over, but that's no reason to give your heart a break. Postpone your medical check-up - hairy crabs are in season.

The roe-enriched species hit Singapore's dining tables rather late - Capitol Restaurant was one of the first Chinese restaurants at the tail-end of the 80s. Suffice to say it was a hit and now, no self-respecting Chinese restaurant can get away with not serving it.

The Jiangnan native used to happily set up home in streams and rivers connected to the sea until the 60s and 70s, when over-fishing and habitat destruction did them in. Suppliers started farming the crabs in the Yang Chenghu lake region in Suzhou, and were the top choice of Shanghainese connoisseurs, who also drove up prices.

While originally a delicacy within China, Shanghainese living in Hong Kong sparked interest in the former British colony and subsequently across Southeast Asia.

Read also: It's hairy crab season! Where to find the best ones

Although it's known as an autumn delicacy, the hairy crab - or mitten crab as it's also known because of its hirsute claws - is available all year round.

Diners only get excited about them in early autumn, when they start to spawn and become filled to bursting with roe.

In Kuala Lumpur, JW Marriott's Chef Wong Wing Yeuk lives and breathes hairy crab. The 64-year-old Shanghai native is a walking encyclopedia who provided most of the material for this article.

His experience dates back to his childhood, when "every street and lane in Shanghai was lined with makeshift stalls selling these crabs during the bumper harvest". He adds, "They were caged in wire baskets and we had to put our hands in to make our selection."

NOT ALL CRABS ARE CREATED EQUAL

Yang Chenghu crabs are no longer in the top spot, thanks to deteriorating water quality. They've since been taken over by breeding farms in nearby Taihu lake, Wuxi, and the dam of Henan Anjia in low-lying Chongming Island, Shanghai.

While die-hard Shanghainese still insist on hairy crabs from Yang Chenghu, most people have already converted to the later harvests. Andrew Lee, a civil servant and foodie who started eating hairy crabs in the '90s, says, "It doesn't matter whether the crab is from Yang Chenghu or Taihu. The most important thing that I look out for is the grade, and which farm it comes from."

Crab fry come from the mouth of the Yangtze River in December and are transferred to the respective farms in the inland lakes. Most crabs are raised in netted-off areas for two years before harvest.

The quality differs depending on how stringent farmers are about the feed and the environment. If you're looking to buy, Mr Lee advises, "Judge the crab by looking at it. Its eyes must be alert; its shell must be green and the underside should be white with no unpleasant smell. Most importantly, all its claws should be intact."

Another tip is to always pick the heaviest crab. At the season's peak, the most sought-after are those with roe bursting out from its rear section.

THE OCCIDENTAL CRAB

Hong Ying Lien, one of the largest crab importers in Singapore says, "You can get hairy crabs from Europe too."

They started out as stowaways centuries ago when trade between Asia and Europe was flourishing. The crabs survived and propagated in huge numbers in the icy cold rivers and lakes of Europe. In fact, the river Thames in Britain is filled with them, except that it's illegal to catch any.

Mr Hong, who visited three fishing farms in Holland, noted how the wild crabs were considered a nuisance that farmers would discard from their catch. Not any more. They're sold in Singapore now, and the advantage is that the Dutch crab season runs up to February, while the China one ends in late-November.

Anyone familiar with hairy crab would know that there are two types of roe: the orange roe of the females, and the whitish 'roe' of the males. "As a Shanghainese I prefer the hard orangey roe of the female crab," says CT See, who now lives in Singapore. But most Singaporeans prefer the male 'roe', which is often soft and creamy.

Still, if you consider eating hairy crab a tedious affair, cut to the chase with Jiangnan xiefen. The pure roe of both male and female crabs is simmered in herbal-infused lard, producing an oily crab paste that is great for tossing with noodles or rice, and as filling for xiao longbao.

How to prepare hairy crabs at home

  • Hua Ting Restaurant’s chef Chung Lap Fai and High Fresh Trading’s director Hong Ying Lien give tips on how to choose, prepare and eat hairy crabs.

  • Make sure the crab is alive by tapping lightly on its shell. Its eyes should pop out and move.

  • Choose a crab that is heavy for its size. The optimum weight is 175g to 200g.

  • Check that the crab is not bruised and that it smells fresh.

    Flip the crab over and look for the apron on its belly. Female crabs have rounded aprons, males have pointed ones.

  • Store the crabs, covered and still alive, in the chiller section of the refrigerator, or at 5 deg C, for no more than one day.

  • FairPrice: Hairy crabs are available at all its FairPrice Finest and hypermarket stores, and in larger FairPrice supermarkets. The crabs are put out for sale from Thursdays to Sundays each week until the end of this month.

    Hairy crabs weighing 150g to 170g cost $8.90 each (usual price $9.90 each). Smaller ones weighing 100g to 120g cost $4.20 each (usual price $5.50 each). The promotional prices are available while stocks last.

  • Cold Storage: Crabs from Tai Hu are available at selected stores such as those in King Albert Park, North Point, Compass Point, West Coast Plaza, Causeway Point, Hougang and West Mall. Those from Yangcheng Hu are available in Jelita, Holland Village, Great World City and Paragon Market Place while the crabs are in season. Prices range from $6.90 to $23.90 each, depending on the variety and size.

  • High Fresh Trading: The company’s hairy crabs are sold from its premises at 94B Jalan Senang, which is open round the clock. Call 6442-7966 at least a day in advance. Prices range from $108 for a box of eight crabs weighing 150g each to $228 for a box with six crabs weighing 220g each. The boxes come with vinegar sauce for dipping, sachets of ginger tea and packets of perilla leaves for steaming the crabs, while the crabs are in season.

  • Madam Hong Ying Lien, director of crab importer High Fresh Trading, visits suppliers in China to ensure she gets good hairy crabs.

  • Clean the crabs one at a time in a basin of water with ice cubes added. The cold water helps keep the crustaceans alive.

    Do not remove the straw or string ties. Scrub the crabs gently using a stiff brush and rinse in the cold water.

  • Flip the crabs over so the belly side is up. Arrange them on a metal or ceramic plate. Place a dried perilla leaf (available at Chinese medical halls which sell herbs) that has been rehydrated over each crab. The perilla leaves remove strong smells from the crabs and mitigate their cooling effect.

  • Steam at high heat for 15 to 20 minutes for crabs up to 250g. For heavier crabs, steam 300g ones for 25 minutes, and add 5 minutes of steaming time for every additional 50g.

  • Cut the strings that bind the crab.

  • Remove the carapace and set aside.

  • Remove the crab gills, which are grey, spongy strips, and discard.

  • Remove the apron of the crab and discard.

  • Break the body in two.

  • Cut off the legs and pincers.

  • Using a sharp pair of crab or kitchen shears, cut down each side of the pincers. Snap the two sides apart and set aside.

  • The legs are divided into three sections. Cut off the sections closest to the crab’s body just before the joint. Cut off and discard the middle sections. Save the last sections.

  • Insert the last joint, pointed end down, into the first section to push the leg meat out.

  • Arrange the prepared crab on a plate (left), serve with vinegar dipping sauce and ginger tea.

  • Bring 1 litre of water to boil, add 5g pu-erh tea leaves, 20g brown sugar that comes in block form, 50g ginger peeled and smashed. Turn heat down and simmer 5 minutes before serving. Serves four.

  • Bring Chinkiang black vinegar to a simmer, add brown sugar in block form to taste. Stir until sugar is dissolved, let cool before serving.

  • And there you have it!
  • Your home-made hairy crab dish is ready to be served.

Best way to prepare hairy crab

1. Do not untie the crab.

2. Use a soft toothbrush to remove dirt from the exterior shell.

3. Line tray with perilla leaves.

4. Place crab, underside up, in a row.

5. Steam crab over high heat for 12 to 15 minutes, depending on the size.

6. Eat while it is hot.

How to eat

1. Break away all claws.

2. Remove the top shell.

3. Clear away the white-coloured sacs, stomach and heart.

4. Dip meat into black vinegar with minced ginger.

5. Ideally, end the meal with a cup of hot ginger tea.

How to eat hairy crab in 8 simple steps

  • What you need: A pair of scissors, a spoon and a pair of chopsticks.

    1. Lift flap on the underside of the crab. For female crabs, the flap is oval and for males, triangular. Remove the heart, which is white. Discard it as it is too "cooling", according to traditional Chinese medicine.

  • 2. Pry open the top shell and spoon out the bright orange roe inside.

  • 3. Remove gills as they cannot be eaten.

  • 4. Hold on to the legs and break the body in half to reveal more roe. Eat the exposed roe and flesh. To get at the meat inside the shell, hold on to a leg and break off the corresponding segment of the body.

  • 5. Snip crab legs off with a pair of scissors. Make a cut again between the two segments of a claw and remove the claw tip from the narrower segment.

  • 6. Push one end of the narrower segment of the claw into the other to extricate the flesh in the latter. For the remaining segment, use a chopstick to get the flesh out.

  • 7. Remove pincer from crab and snip away its two smaller segments.

  • 8. Cut along the sides of the biggest segment of the pincer to remove half of the shell, revealing the meat in the front claw.

Where to get

Jiang-Nan Chun Four Seasons Hotel Singapore
190 Orchard Road
T.6734 1110

Jin Shan Lou Marina Bay Sands Hotel
1 Bayfront Avenue, #01-05 Tower 2 Hotel Lobby
T.6688 7733

Lucky 8
Shaw Centre #03-07/11 1 Scott Road
T.6836 3070

Tonny Restaurant
10 Lorong 3 Geylang
T.6748 6618

High Fresh Trading
94B Jalan Senang
T.6442 7966


This article was first published on Nov 5, 2016.
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