Photo: cokemomo / 123rf
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.
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, Madam Hong Ying Lien, director of High Fresh Trading visits suppliers in China to ensure she gets good hairy crabs. High Fresh is one of the largest crab importers in Singapore. Madam Hong 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.”
THE OCCIDENTAL CRAB
Madam Hong adds, “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 Holland, the wild crabs were once 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.
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
High Fresh Trading: Order online (highfresh.com.sg) or purchase directly from their shop at 94B Jalan Senang. Tel: 6442-7966. Open daily, 9am-8pm.
Allswell Marketing: Purchase from their store at 670 Geylang Road. Contact: 6745-1123, www.allswell.sg. Open daily, 8.30am-7pm.
Fairprice: Selected outlets, including Fairprice Xtra at #01-29 Kallang Wave Mall.
Causeway Pacific: The company is still in the procurement process, so stocks will only come in around end October or early November. 40 Lorong 1 Realty Park, People’s Garden. Contact: 6280-0012, www.causewaypacific.com.
*Call ahead to check that stocks are available before heading down.
This story was first published in on StraitsTimes.com