Chefs rev up to meet demand for hairy crabs
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.
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.