It is hairy crab season and brisk sales at supermarkets suggest that people, aside from enjoying the seasonal delicacy in restaurants, are cooking and eating them at home.
The FairPrice chain, which started selling such crabs more than five years ago, says it has seen a 20 per cent increase in sales from last year.
High Fresh Trading, which imports the crabs and sells them to restaurants and retail customers, also reports a 20 per cent yearly growth since it started importing them in 2000.
The Cold Storage chain, which started selling them about five years ago, would not give figures, but a spokesman says: "The response has been great as a lot of our customers are gourmands and are cooking them at home."
Freshwater hairy crabs, distinguished by hairs on the legs and tufts of dark brown hair on the claws, are an autumn delicacy. The season usually starts in September and runs until December, although the peak is during mid-October and November.
It got off to a late start this year because of warm weather in China, says chef Chung Lap Fai, 50, from Hua Ting Restaurant in Orchard Hotel. The crabs need cool temperatures to fatten up for mating.
Female hairy crabs mature more quickly and are eaten in the first part of the season. They tend to be smaller and the roe is harder. The milt in male crabs, also coloured orange, is creamy and sticky in contrast.
As the crabs have a cooling effect on the body, people drink warming ginger tea while eating them, and dip the flesh in black vinegar.
Crabs that come from Yangcheng Hu in Jiangsu province have been favoured by connoisseurs for some time now. Singapore gets its supply from that lake, as well as from Tai Hu, on the border of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces.
In recent years, crustaceans from other lakes, such as Nanjing or Gucheng, have been passed off as coming from Yangcheng.
FairPrice says it has a certificate from the China Food & Drug Administration stating that the crabs it sells are the real thing. Cold Storage says it works with its suppliers to ensure that it gets quality hairy crabs.
Meanwhile, High Fresh's director, Madam Hong Ying Lien, 50, visits suppliers in China to ensure she gets good hairy crabs. She says she prefers the ones from Tai Hu, as Yangcheng Hu is surrounded by industrial buildings and the "water is not good".
"Tai Hu is bigger and the water is cleaner," she says.
Restaurants come up with menus that include the whole crab, as well as dishes made using the roe and meat, during the season. These include dumplings, soups and steamed or scrambled egg white with hairy crab roe and meat. Depending on the dishes, many menus hover at the three-figure mark.
But demand from those wanting to cook it at home has prompted Madam Hong, who also supplies mud crabs and other seafood to restaurants, to sell hairy crabs in gift boxes.
Aside from crabs, the boxes include the vinegar dipping sauce and ginger tea that are served alongside the crabs, and dried perilla leaves that are rehydrated then draped over the crustaceans before they go into the steamer.
She started the hairy crab boxes three years ago, to make it easier for retail customers, 80 per cent of whom are China nationals living here, to give the crabs away as gifts, as they do back home.
Mrs Annie Lu, 67, who has lived here for 45 years and is originally from Hong Kong, says she has been eating hairy crabs at home since she was a young girl, and continues the tradition each year.
Asked why she prefers cooking them at home to eating the crabs in a restaurant, she says: "The experience is entirely different. It is more intimate, friendly, jovial when you have hairy crabs at home, particularly since it's very much a 'hands on' dining experience.
"More importantly, at home, we can have the crabs cooked in smaller batches so we can dine at a slower pace without the crabs going cold."
She sometimes steams the crabs with a light-flavoured beer, or with dried perilla leaves, and serves them with Huatiao wine from Shaoxing. "It's a personal taste, but I prefer the male crabs as the milt is softer and smoother," she says.
Another hairy crab aficionado is Mr Paul Yeow, 53, regional director of a research company. He has been cooking them at home for the last three years, and gets his crabs from a friend who sources them from Shanghai.
What he calls exorbitant prices in restaurants prompted him to cook the crustaceans at home, where he and his guests can also "get messy".
Aside from eating the crabs whole, he also serves the meat and roe with pasta or makes fried hor fun (rice noodles) topped with the roe.
He says: "I prefer male crabs because they are less rich but the majority of my friends just want roe, roe, roe."
HOW TO CHOOSE CRABS
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.
WHERE TO BUY
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.
HOW TO PREPARE 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 (photo 1).
- 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 (photo 2) 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 (photo 3).
- 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 (photo 4).
- Arrange the prepared crab on a plate (photo 5), serve with vinegar dipping sauce and ginger tea.
- To make ginger tea (photo 6): 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.
- To make vinegar dip: Bring Chinkiang black vinegar (photo 7) to a simmer, add brown sugar in block form to taste. Stir until sugar is dissolved, let cool before serving.