By Alvin Wang
June 18, 2008
Zhouzhuang is a 1,000 year-old restored water village that bills itself as the “Venice of the East.” It is a two hour bus ride from downtown Shanghai. A series of 14 bridges span the lakes and tree-lined canals that criss-cross this rustic, picturesque town. The narrow cobblestoned streets and many of the homes (including a 100 room mansion) are restored to their former Ming dynasty glory. Visiting Zhouzhuang is like taking a step back into the imperial period of China’s colorful past. But that is not why we went to Zhouzhuang.
Hairy crab is a culinary specialty of Shanghai. Just about any travel guide will tell you this. The crab is a freshwater crustacean (Eriocheir Sinensis) that is only harvested in autumn so many tourists who visit during the high season of summer will not see this offered on menus. We visited Shanghai in November and did see it on menus. In fact, our Shanghainese host family insisted that for a truly sublime culinary experience we needed to go to the source. That is, taking an excursion to Zhouzhuang where the hairy crab is harvested.
It is late afternoon and we hop into the family minivan and once outside of Shanghai reach a quiet country road approaching Zhouzhuang. Night falls and it is hard to see anything beyond the beam of our headlights. Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere a blazing aurora of neon lights confronts us. There at a turn-off is a massive parking lot surrounded by 30 restaurants--each garnished from top to bottom in neon. Many of the eateries are 3--4 stories tall. It is clear that we have found the promised land of hairy crab--Yangcheng Lake. Yes, we hit the jackpot, the Las Vegas of Crabs--the city devoted to the gustatory worship of this hirsuit crustacean. Because the sole raison d-etre for this city is the preparation of male and female hairy crabs for the hordes of customers who travel from Shanghai and beyond to sample this delicacy.
How to eat hairy crab. First, it should be noted that hairy crab is not all that hairy. Only the pincer claws exhibit a dark hairy mass and the males are hairier than females. Second, no utensils are needed to eat these crustaceans other than one’s hands and teeth. Third, if you think this is like the blue crab familiar to most Marylanders, forget about it. Each crab is carefully trussed up with twine so that the legs and claws are neatly compressed against its body which is much plumper than its American cousin. It looks like it has been gift wrapped after it gets pulled from the steamer. The adage “women first” doesn’t apply when dining on hairy crab. According to tradition, male crabs are always eaten before female crabs and the parts of both are dipped in malt vinegar which enhances the flavor of the crab. Having unwrapped the male crab from its truss, you should pull away the shell covering the stomach revealing its soupy interior (one needn’t look too intently at the innards). Next, keeping the crab on its back, gently lift and separate the body of the crab from the carapace (back shell). The carapace can then serve as a mini-bowl containing the roe and innards to which a dash of malt vinegar is added. Using chopsticks, the diner mixes this soupy concoction and then slurps it down while bringing the carapace up to one’s mouth. The experience? Wonderful crab goodness. Yum.
The next step involves breaking the crab’s body down the midline using both hands. Scrape away the gills. One can now bite down segment by segment, chewing slowly while sucking out the meat and juices from the cartilage and shell. In China, it is ok to spit the inedible portions onto one’s bowl or plate. The goal is to end up with a small pile of cartilage and shell from which all crab goodness has been extracted. If you do not wear dentures, you can now proceed in a similar fashion to the legs and pincer claws.
After the appendages have been consumed, you should then grab a female hairy crab and repeat the aforementioned steps.
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