SINGAPORE (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.
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.
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.
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