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Chefs explain: What drives China’s love for hairy crabs?

October is always an exciting month for gourmands around the world. The fall season beckons sweet pumpkins, crisp apples and, of course, some of the best white truffles from Alba, Italy.

In China, there’s another reason to be excited. From late September till November, Chinese fishermen dedicate their time reeling in massive amounts of hairy crabs from freshwater streams around the country.

Hairy crabs, dubbed so for the spindly hair-like spikes on its legs and pincers, has become a yearly fall tradition in China since ancient times. While it was originally a delicacy from eastern Chinese cuisine, the hairy crab’s bright orange roe has attracted millions of eager diners across the country. While the crabs itself are small, and the payload is equally measly. But the sweet, buttery roe is addictive and incomparable to other crabs.

Live hairy crabs sold at a fish market in Nansha Island. Guangzhou (Image credit: LSA)
Live hairy crabs sold at a fish market in Nansha Island. Guangzhou (Image credit: LSA)
Chef Gordon Leung (Image credit: Shangri-La Group)
Chef Gordon Leung (Image credit: Shangri-La Group)

The craze for hairy crab is not as widespread in Singapore, but a few Chinese restaurants here are taking it upon themselves to put this crustacean on the menu. This year, Shang Social is presenting an exclusive set menu revolving around the prized seafood. Chef Gordon Leung, the newly-appointed Chinese Executive Chef for Shangri-La Group, curates this seven-course menu around traditional and modern recipes featuring the crab.

“Hairy crab is only in season for two months every autumn,” Leung shares. “This is the time of year that hairy crabs reach maturity and migrate from freshwater to the ocean to breed. It is during this movement when farmers start to harvest the crabs.”

It is an extremely crucial moment for farmers. At this stage, hairy crabs are plump with roe and sweet flesh. But these mature crabs only mate once. When they start breeding, they die out and farmers will have to try again the next season for new crabs. As such, hairy crabs are incredibly rare. Farmers must come armed with immense experience and a good instinct for the seasons to succeed in this lucrative trade.

Yangcheng Lake (Image credit: Suzhou Village)

Seasoned farmers also know the best places to look for hair crabs: in Yangcheng Lake, a freshwater lake northeast of the city of Suzhou in the Jiangsu Province. These crabs from Yangcheng Lake fetch astronomical prices. “We’re looking at US$100 per kilogram of hairy crab if hey are authentically certified to be from Yangcheng,” Leung says.

As stocks of hairy crabs are depleting from overfishing, many are looking overseas to continue feeding this highly-competitive Chinese market. Hairy crabs can be found in abundance in Taiwan, Japan and the Netherlands, though they are often regarded as a nuisance to native wildlife than a delicacy. Entrepreneurial businessmen from these countries see these as an alternative (and perhaps cheaper) source for crab.

Hairy crabs packed with roe (Image credit: LSA)

The reason for the difference in prices is surprising as well. Weight is no indicator of quality when it comes to hairy crabs. “Generally, Taiwanese and Japanese crabs are bigger in size, but their colour is lighter and less lustrous,” Leung adds. “There is also less roe in these crabs.”

But the provenance of the hairy crab should not be a distraction from quality. Should one have the incredible fortune of coming by Yangcheng hairy crabs, it is advisable to still keep a lookout for the best of the lot.

“Generally, good hairy crabs have gold-brown hairs on their legs, and their claws are sturdy,” Leung shares.

“When picking a fresh crab, press on the shell area near the eyes. If the eyes show immediate response, it means the crab is alert and healthy, and therefore, tasty. Good hairy crabs also smell fresh and have a shiny surface.” Last but not least, the crabs should still be alive and kicking before cooking.

Steamed hairy crab (Image credit: Cigna)

Because of its exquisite nature, enjoying hairy crab need not involve complicated cooking. Leung suggests having it the traditional way: steamed and enjoyed with vinegar and ginger. But most restaurants would try to take on the hairy crab in more elevated and innovative ways.

At Shang Social, Leung is presenting the hairy crab in seven different courses for lunch and dinner. Diners can expect more than just steamed crab. For starters, there’s bisque of hairy crab roe, braised crab and shredded fish. Then there’s also a prawn and hairy crab wok-fry and a dumpling of steamed hairy crab and pork.

From Leung’s menu: wok-fried prawn and hairy crab meat (Image credit: Shang Social)

Despite the more modern interpretation, Leung stands by one tradition when enjoying hairy crab. “The practice is to pair Chinese yellow wine with hairy crab, and I have picked an eight-year-old Calabash Shao Xing Wine as the perfect companion with my dishes.”

Chef Gordon Leung’s Hairy Crab Feast menu is available from 14 October 2019 to 10 November 2019 at Shang Social. Both lunch and dinner menus are priced at $138++ per person and at $158++ per person with a bottle of Calabash Shao Xing Wine.

Jasmine Tay
Senior Writer
Jasmine Tay is the dining, culture and jewellery writer. She makes fine silver jewellery and causes mini-explosions in the kitchen when she can't afford fancy dinners. Sometimes she tells people what she thinks about art, and binges on the music of Danzig when they don’t agree.