Sea­sonal taste

Chefs rev up to meet de­mand for hairy crabs

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at xu­jun­qian@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

Zheng Xian­chao doesn’t look like a kid­nap­per, but his tied-up “vic­tims” might tell you oth­er­wise.

The 28-year-old Shang­hai na­tive ar­rives at the renownedWang BaoHe restau­rant be­fore 7 ev­ery morn­ing and spends the next two hours se­lect­ing 1,000 hairy crabs from the back of a black van, flanked only by his shifu (mas­ter).

The two only pick fe­male crabs that weigh more than 100 grams and males over 150 grams. Any­thing lighter would be frowned upon by the cus­tomers of the time­honored restau­rant that spe­cial­izes in the au­tumn del­i­cacy.

Af­ter trans­port­ing the crabs to the 272year-old restau­rant, Zheng spends an­other three hours tire­lessly ty­ing each squirm­ing crus­tacean with long blades of boiled lemon­grass. The en­tire space, thanks to the scent of the herb, smells more like a spa than a kitchen.

This has been Zheng’s daily rou­tine dur­ing hairy-crab sea­son for the past 10 years. The way he binds the crabs’ claws and feet to­gether is down to mus­cle mem­ory.

“I think I have dealt with more crabs than one could pos­si­bly eat in his life,” laughs Zheng, as he fin­ger-wres­tles a crab into po­si­tion be­fore us­ing his teeth to tug a blade of lemon­grass tight around a crab.

The un­usu­ally high rain­fall and flood­ing in East China this sum­mer has re­sulted in a lower than ex­pected hairy crab har­vest this year. Crab out­put at Yangcheng Lake, the most fa­mous pro­duc­tion ground in China that spans more than 2,000 hectares, has dropped by 15 per­cent.

As a re­sult, the price of these cov­eted crus­taceans is the high­est in a decade, around 150 yuan ($22) for a male and fe­male pair­ing. That’s equiv­a­lent to the min­i­mum daily wage in Shang­hai, and about 20 per­cent more than last year, ac­cord­ing to the Yangcheng Lake Crab In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion.

Not that any­one atWang BaoHe is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned. They know cus­tomers will still flock to the es­tab­lish­ment re­gard­less of the price hike.

“Up or down, peo­ple who can af­ford it will al­ways come and pay for it. It’s like the real es­tate mar­ket in Shang­hai — peo­ple al­ways com­plain but they will still buy prop­er­ties,” says Wu, one of the kitchen staff at Wang BaoHe.

The 54-year-old first started as a dish­washer at the restau­rant, so she’s been around for even longer than Zheng. To­day, she and seven other em­ploy­ees are ex­pertly ex­tract­ing the meat and roe from boiled hairy crabs, each one about the size of a hu­man fist.

Wu and her col­leagues pro­duce about 300 grams of roe and flesh ( xiefen) for ev­ery kilo­gram of crabs. The sweet and ten­der flesh is now fea­tured in about 50 dif­fer­ent crab dishes that are pre­pared at the other end of the kitchen by chefWangHao.

Since the 1930s, the restau­rant had been of­fer­ing cus­tomers boiled hairy crabs with its famed yel­low wine, which in China is some­what equiv­a­lent to pair­ing oys­ters and cham­pagne in France.

How­ever, it was not un­til the coun­try re­opened its doors to the world in the 1980s that hairy crabs, like other lux­ury items, be­came widely avail­able again. That’s when the restau­rant made the hairy crab a reg­u­lar item on the menu and cre­ated 10 dishes around it, soon earn­ing it­self the ti­tle of “the an­ces­tors of wine and the king of crabs”.

“We are the first in China to of­fer a crab feast,” claims chef Wang, who started his ap­pren­tice­ship at the restau­rant in 1981.

Fol­low­ing Wang Bao He’s suc­cess in in­cor­po­rat­ing hairy crabs into its menus, sim­i­lar din­ing es­tab­lish­ments soon spawned. In 1991, Shang­hai’s Xin Guang restau­rant be­came the first spe­cial­ized hairy crab es­tab­lish­ment in China. A decade later, Fu­jian na­tiveKeWei set up Cheng Long Hang, which to­day is known as the largest hairy crab restau­rant chain in the coun­try.

The op­tions for hairy-crab lovers, how­ever, are not lim­ited to these few in­sti­tu­tions. A quick search on Dian­ping.com, China’s most pop­u­lar din­ing di­rec­tory, shows that there are hun­dreds of such restau­rants in Shang­hai. Even for­eign com­pa­nies have been quick to jump into the fray: Sin­ga­pore’s Par­adise Group, among oth­ers, has in­tro­duced a spe­cial menu fea­tur­ing four hairy-crab dishes this year.

“The way peo­ple are en­joy­ing crab dishes to­day is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from decades ago,” saysWang.

“Be­fore, peo­ple wanted a dish that fea­tured the crab­meat be­cause most in­di­vid­u­als could not af­ford hav­ing an en­tire crab to them­selves. To­day, din­ers want the same, but only be­cause they don’t have the time and pa­tience to ex­tract the meat them­selves.”

The most ex­pen­sive dish onWang’smenu is a sim­ple plate of stir-fried flesh ex­tracted from three crabs that is packed into the shell of the crus­tacean. This dish costs 480 yuan per serv­ing.

“You won’t need vine­gar for it. It tastes divine whether chilled or hot,” saysWang.

The se­cret to this dish, he says, are the lemon­grass used to tie the crabs, the per­illa that is added to the boil­ing wa­ter and the cit­rus juice added to the sauce.

“One of the things that dis­cour­ages many peo­ple from eat­ing the crabs, aside from the la­bo­ri­ous dis­sec­tion, is their muddy and at times fishy fla­vor. This is some­thing we’ve been good at neu­tral­iz­ing,” saysWang.

PHO­TOS BY GAO ERQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Kitchen staff, in­clud­ing chef Wang Hao (mid­dle left) and those who tie crabs with boiled lemon­grass and ex­tract the meat and roe from boiled hairy crabs, are busy work­ing dur­ing hairy-crab sea­son at Wang Bao He restau­rant in Shang­hai, which spe­cial­izes in the au­tumn del­i­cacy.

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