Monday, 12 November 2012

Getting Crabs

(Sorry folks – couldn’t resist.)

Before arriving in Shanghai, I had heard that the months October and November were a special time in the Chinese food calendar – crab season. Although many restaurants feature crab on their menus throughout the year, these months were the only time to sample freshly caught dazha xie in all their hairy glory.

“Hairy crabs”, so named for the fur on their claws and prized for their flavor, are harvested from a nearby lake in the autumn and countless restaurants throw multi-course feasts featuring different parts of the crab to celebrate the season. From the day I landed, I knew I needed to try this delicacy – I had noticed posters around town, read articles, and even seen whole shops dedicated to crabs and the tools associated with their disassembling. The crabs lay in their guarded display cases, all wrapped up like Christmas presents, and ready for the steamer – ‘twas the season, and they would be mine.

The choice was difficult, but we forewent the pricey feasts and went with a somewhat-secret local spot called Yong Xing I had read about – it is called a ‘canting’ (with similar allusions as a “canteen”) in reference to its old school, home-style atmosphere, and sounded promising. So off we went, with visions of crabs scuttling in our heads.

We ducked down an alley and pushed open the door to what appeared to be someone’s living room, replete with glossy faux-exposed bricks and fish tanks on the wall, one housing a fat bullfrog destined for someone’s dinner. The tables were covered mah jong tables, no doubt in use during the day for a small crew of regulars, and the bathroom was up Everest-steep rickety steps that passed a tiny kitchen which doubled as someone’s bedroom. “Home-style” indeed.

Although we had a reservation, necessary for such a tiny place, and were on time, surprising yet again necessary in this city, we watched a parade of delicious-looking dishes while we waited by the door for small groups of families or business associates to finish their meals – a 7:30 reservation is late, after all. 

When we were finally seated, we ordered a selection of seeming requisites, judging by the tables around us – ya juan (“duck roll”), xue cai yao guo (“winter vegetables” with cashew), Shanghainese classic jiu huang tu dou si (fried potato sticks in vinegar, topped with yellow chives), jiao yan pai tiao (salt-and-pepper ribs) and gan shao chang yu (whole fish baked with chilies).

Shanghainese food has a reputation for being sickly sweet, with everything smothered in thick and saccharine soy or vinegar sauces, but this was elevated home cooking – everything was fresh and fantastic. The fried “winter vegetables” were like warm kale chips, the potato sticks as crisp and tangy as S&V potato chips, and the fish was delicate and deeply-flavored (albeit a bone minefield). The duck roll was bizarre – like a smoked-pâté-wrapped hard-boiled egg yolk that someone creepily referred to as a “mother and child reunion” – but delightful nonetheless.

But on to the main event – the crabs.

The waitress had brought over a live crab, still bluish-gray and bubbling at the mouth, to show us for size, and we had ordered one each. These guys were the real deal: I know that they are called “hairy crabs” for a reason, but the fur coating their claws was almost disgustingly dense – very Movember-appropriate.

Undeterred, we started hacking away, when the owner, a Chinese Lucille Ball complete with a ginger ‘fro and drawn-on face, came over and used a small pair of scissors to delicately dismantle them. She snipped off the legs and cut each open length-wise, before opening the body and leaving the claws. She arranged the appendages as she went until we were left with complete but cleaned crabs once again. What a gem.

Although the scissors had helped, the trick is to use a smaller claw to pull out the meat in the legs, and then focus your energy on the body and large foreclaws, while avoiding the hair. There isn’t much meat in the little critters, but what little there was proved sweet and tender, perfectly complemented by the sweet vinegar dipping sauce served alongside. After all of our (/Lucille’s) work picking them apart, we gave our fingers a soak in the elaborate finger bowl centerpiece before heading back out into the alley, wallets only a little lighter.

I finally got crabs – and it was totally worth the effort.

Yong Xing Canting
626 Fuxing Zhong Lu, near Ruijin Lu
French Concession

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