For food lovers, the appearance of hairy crab on restaurant menus across town is the surest sign of autumn.
Hairy crab season runs through the eighth, ninth and tenth months of the lunar calendar — which translates into early September to mid-December on the Gregorian calendar for 2020, with the season peaking in October.
While the delicacy is an annual highlight looked forward to by many, how should the prized crustaceans be eaten in order to get the most out of them? We invite chefs from three MICHELIN-recommended restaurants — Chen Tian Lung, chief chef at one-MICHELIN-starred Jardin de Jade, Li Man Lung, executive chef at one-MICHELIN-starred Duddell's, and Li Chi Wai, Chinese executive chef at MICHELIN Plate restaurant The Legacy House — to share their tips.
Where to find the best hairy crabs
Chinese mitten crabs from Yangcheng Lake, a freshwater lake in China's Jiangsu province prized for its pristine water quality, have long been the most well-known source for hairy crabs.
However, none of the three chefs are serving them this year. Duddell's chef Li Man Lung feels that the huge demand for hairy crabs has led to many profit-driven farmers raising them on feed that contain artificial additives and hormones. In contrast, wild Hokkaido hairy crabs grown in the clean waters of the Ishikari River are a safer choice for Li, who started using Hokkaido crabs last year. Hokkaido hairy crabs and Chinese mitten crabs are two different breeds of the same species, which is why they look similar to one another. When it comes to their taste, however, Li points out that the roe of Hokkaido crabs are light and fragrant — a stark contrast to the richness of the Chinese mitten crab.
Chef Chen Tian Lung of Jardin de Jade, who prefers crabs from Taihu Lake, at the junction of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, says the high demand for Yangcheng Lake crabs has resulted in the emergence of many "counterfeit crabs" of dubious provenance, which often leaves him worried about whether he’s getting the real deal. He would rather have Taihu Lake crabs, which he can count on as they are similar in quality to Yangcheng Lake crabs, with equally tasty crab roe. Chef Li Chi Wai of The Legacy House, too, prefers Taihu Lake crabs for their crab roe, which he says is more fragrant and of higher quality than that of other crabs.
What is the best size for a hairy crab?
When choosing crabs, pick those that weigh at least 200 grams to be sure they will have tasty roe, according to chef Chen of Jardin de Jade. Larger crabs weighing 260 grams or more used to appear on the market around mid-November, but they have become a rarity in Hong Kong in recent years due to a growing demand for them among increasingly well-heeled diners in mainland China. As for Hokkaido hairy crabs, chef Li says that those that weigh at least 225 grams will have both crab roe and crab meat in their best condition and at their most delicious.
What is the best way to eat a hairy crab?
The traditional way to enjoy hairy crabs is to have them steamed and served as a whole crab. Jardin de Jade’s chef Chen observes that some customers enjoy sequentially working their way through the crab, from parts with the lightest to the richest flavours — that is, starting from the crab legs before moving on to crab roe. Yet others begin with crab roe as they are worried about it turning cold and unappetising by the time they get to enjoy the "liquid gold". Regardless of your preferred sequence, chef Li of The Legacy House says one should never forget to remove the crab heart (the white, hexagon-shaped section between the gills), as well as other internal organs, as they have a bitter flavour.
What should one pay attention to when cooking with hairy crab roe?
Chef Li of The Legacy House emphasises the importance of refrigerating the crab roe immediately after prying the crab apart to avoid spoilage, while chef Chen of Jardin de Jade says they pay careful attention when inspecting the crab roe, which is separated from the crab meat in-house, to look out for broken shells. When cooking the roe, chef Li of Duddell’s stresses that the cooking temperature should not be too high so as not to ruin the crab’s original taste. Chef Chen takes care not to over-season the roe to keep its original flavours intact.
What should one drink when eating hairy crabs?
As hairy crabs are rather "cooling", according to traditional Chinese medicine, a warming ginger tea is served at both Duddell's and Jardin de Jade for balance. The crabs are traditionally also enjoyed with sips of yellow wine in between, which chef Chen offers at Jardin de Jade under its house label. The Legacy House carries a selection of Vin Jaune D'Arly yellow wines from France; while at Duddell’s, guests can enjoy a yellow wine pairing service for an additional fee.
EXTENDED READING: What Do MICHELIN Inspectors Say About The Legacy House?
Which crab dish would you recommend at your restaurants?
Chef Li of The Legacy House recommends their Stuffed Fish Maw with Shrimp Paste and Hairy Crab Cream (pictured left, $480/serving), which elevates a traditional Guangdong delicacy with the addition of hairy crab cream. Chef Chen of Jardin de Jade recommends the Fried Shanghai Crab Meat ($798/serving), which is a plate full of pure hairy crab roe stir-fried with oil, ginger and spring onions, and has won over many customers over the years. Chef Li of Duddell’s recommends the Xiao Long Bao with Hairy Crab Roe ($78/person), which are filled with house-made crab oil made from hairy crab shells to enhance their flavour.
More information about hairy crab menus at the three featured MICHELIN restaurants:
- Duddell’s is serving a 6-course Hokkaido Hairy Crab Menu ($1,288/person) from now till the end of November 2020. Dishes include Steamed Whole Hairy Crab, Xiao Long Bao with Hairy Crab Roe, Fried Glutinous Rice with Hairy Crab Roe and Hairy Crab Leg Meat and more. Eight other a la carte dishes featuring hairy crabs are also available during this period.
- Jardin de Jade is offering a Taihu Hairy Crab A La Carte Menu from now till mid-December 2020. Among the 19 dishes are a classic Steamed Whole Hairy Crab (market price), Shanghai Crab Meat with River Prawns ($598/serving) and Shanghai Crab Meat with Tianjin Cabbage ($458/serving).
- The Legacy House’s Taihu Hairy Crab A La Carte Menu is available from now till the end of November 2020. Apart from the quintessential Steamed Whole Hairy Crab (market price), the menu also features dishes such as Steamed Egg White Wrap with Rock Rice and Hairy Crab Cream ($240/person) and Braised Tofu and Scallops with Hairy Crab Cream ($280/serving).
Banner image courtesy of Duddell's. In the photo: Steamed Whole Hokkaido Hairy Crab.
This article was written by Mandy Li and translated by Tang Pin-Ji. Click here to read the original article.