Getting a Genuine Hairy Crab Experience?

It is hairy crab season.  But perhaps, I didn’t have to tell you. The olive green, fist-sized crabs are on display in wet markets and neatly displayed in glass counters around Hong Kong.  Restaurants have advertised their special Hairy Crab menus to celebrate the availability of this delicacy.  Soon after mid-autumn festival marks the beginning of the Hairy Crab season lasting until late November or early December.

While the crabs can be sourced from other parts of China, these crustaceans from Yangcheng Lake are most coveted.  But with such high demand for these famous crabs, many fake hairy crabs are available in the market. A few years back, to set them apart from the counterfeit hairy crabs, Yangcheng Lake producers devised a system. They marked the crabs with a laser stamp and a serial number.  Naturally, the counterfeit crab sellers managed to create their own fake laser stamps and serial numbers.  This year, the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association took additional measures such as uniformly packing the crabs, licensing their handlers, and coming up with a 12-digit shipment code.  But, it is likely for the clever counterfeits to still find a way to find a way around this.

With the proliferation of fakes, how can one be assured of having an authentic hairy crab experience?  Over lunch with Maurice Kong, Head of Food and Beverage Director of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, I learned the nuances of this Hairy delicacy.   With the high demands of the restaurants and banquets of this bustling convention centre, this seasoned F&B Director is experienced in sourcing the best hairy crabs to please the thousands of top executive and international bigwigs he feeds every day.

“One must rely on a reputable supplier of Hairy Crabs. And there are only a handful in Hong Kong,” he tells me. Kong sources his Hairy Crabs from Yangcheng and Tai Hu. He explains that a 8 to 9oz Hairy Crab sells for HK$400 and for 6 to 7oz crab is around HK$200.  But the fake ones you can buy for $100 for 3 pieces.” To the untrained eye, it is hard to determine a real hairy crab from a fake one.  Kong tells me to look for the hairy legs. But this becomes difficult to see if the crab is dirty or once the crab is cooked and the hair has fallen off.  But once the crab is cooked, you can tell from the vibrant orange roe from the male crab. He insists that only the real hairy crab roe has a bright orange hue.


Steamed Hairy Crabs

The crab roe is the most coveted characteristic of this crab.  This year, the female hairy crabs were available in late August. The roe from these female crabs are yellow and creamy. This November, it is the best time to consume the male crabs oozing with rich orange fat.  Kong tells me that most of the customers in the Convention Centre’s New Shanghai Restaurant opt for the male crabs. The one-year old restaurant has several set menus featuring many ways with the Hairy Crab. They serve the steamed Shanghainese Crab.  But for the lazy diners who can’t be bothered peeling their crabs, there are many dishes laden with cholesterol-rich crab fat. The Sauteed Egg White Served in Fresh Crab with Salty Egg Prawn and Mandarin Fish is definitely worth trying.  This dish won the nod of the HK Tourism Board for Best of the Best Gold Award 2010 for the Seafood Category. The play on the delicate texture of the fish, the bold Salty egg prawn, and the velvety roe is simply delightful, not all oily.  Xiao Long Baos have a unique sweetness, unlike other dumplings I’ve tried before.  Kong explains that the dumplings are freshly made and never frozen. But I think it is the fresh hairy crab roe adds that pleasant zing to their steamed dumplings.


Sauteed EggWhite Served with Fresh Crab Roe with Salty Egg Prawn and Mandarin Fish at New Shanghai Restaurant

There are many restaurants and hotels celebrating the Hairy Crab season outside Shanghai. Our Food & Wine Calendar for this month lists special menus in Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore celebrating this crustacean.  While there are an abundance of fake hairy crabs in the market, my best piece of advice: go to a reputable restaurant, and let them pamper you with a genuine Hairy Crab meal. 

Text by Maida Pineda. Photo of the dishes courtesy of New Shanghai Restaurant. 

Posted 16 November 2010