Steamed Crabs: Seasonal Delight
Delicious steamed hairy crabs can be enjoyed only in the autumn as they are fleshy and juicy during this period. In China, eating crabs has a long history and has even found its way into many works of literature.
The taste of hairy crab is a seasonal delight. Li Bai, famed Tang Dynasty (AD 618–907) poet, once wrote that "The fat of a crab is like the immortal's golden wine, the best liquor found in Penglai. Such drinks one must not decline, sending spirits heavenward under moon's shine.” Good wine and gourmet food have long been sought after by poets, their praises revealing the Chinese fondness for fresh dishes. During this season around the Mid-autumn Festival is when hairy crabs (so called due to their “hairy” claws) come clambering onto the dinner table. As a saying goes, "As autumn winds breeze, the crabs begin to crawl. Their season has come.” In September, it is customary to eat female crabs, full of creamy meat, while males, with their fresh, solid meat are an October delight.
Each weighing at least 150 grams, hairy crabs, or dazhaxie in Chinese, are also called Chinese mitten crabs. History has it that crab catchers in coastal areas near Suzhou and Kunshan set up gates along the harbours. Made from strips of bamboo, these gates were decorated with lanterns at night. Seeing the light, the crabs climbed along the grids and were the silly, “sha” in Chinese, crabs easily caught by fishermen, which eventually led to the “zha” in the name dazhaxie. In his History of Hairy Crabs, novelist Bao Tianxiao gives a different tale, relating that the name dazhaxie came from crab vendors in Suzhou. As people would eat crabs during the evening, vendors peddled crabs in the afternoon, calling along the alleys "Crabs! Crabs!”, or “sa” in the Suzhou dialect, which also means boiling in water. These water-boiled crabs were called “sa crabs”, similar in sound with “zha,” a rhyme that has spread to this day.
As a myth surrounding the crabs goes, thousands of years ago, people lived along the south bank of the Yangtze River by farming and fishing. During harvest
times, odd creatures began to appear in the myriad lakes and ponds. With their two claws, these fierce creatures would prey on rice fields and steal the grains meant for harvest, sometimes even injuring people with their pincers. Regarded as harmful insects, people called them "pincers." As these insects continued to invade the fields, a battle erupted. Stymied by the constant ferocity of these "pincers," the inhabitants dug a deep trench, filling it with boiling hot water. During the next attack, the bugs fell into the trench and were boiled alive. As the dead bugs piled up, their pincers turned red, and began to emanate a sweet and delicious smell. One fighter by the name of Bajie worked up his courage and took a bite—and instantly decided it was a true delicacy. News quickly travelled along the Yangtze, and people soon lost their fear for the once terrible insects. In honour of Bajie, the “pincers” were named after him ( bajie dazhaxia in Chinese), and later the temple Bawang and the town of Bacheng were named in his memory.
In China, crabs have had a number of nicknames since ancient times, some of the more colourful ones being the “Sideways General” and “Mr. No-intestines.” Among the myriad aquatic creatures, the tenacious crab is among the most fierce-looking. In the Song Dynasty (AD 960–1279), Shen Kuo recorded in Meng Xi Bi Tan ( Dream Pool Essays) that "There are no crabs in Guanzhong. People feared their evil looks, considering them monsters. Whenever someone would come down with malaria, families would place a crab at their porch to scare off evil.” Yet perhaps its dual features of odd looks and delicious taste is what made crabs so beloved by poets and China's literary class.
The famous Tang Dynasty poet Pi Rixiu (AD 834–883) wrote in his “Ode to the Crab”: "I haven't travelled to the sea, yet I know of its fame. Its flesh is borne out of its bones. Tales say they fear lightning, but are brave enough to strut even in the presence of the Dragon King.” While the word “crab” is never mentioned, it vividly presents the likeness and reputation of the crab in the ocean world. Reflecting on the autumnal crab harvest, Tang Dynasty poet Tang Yanqian (AD ?–893) wrote in his “Crabs,” "Cold dew falls in lake fields. As rice ripens, so comes the crab season. People busy trawls and buckets, for nothing other than the crabs." In the Song Dynasty, Fang Yue (1199–1262, poet) shared similar thoughts, “The oxen are stout with the thick grass, the flowers are in their final bloom and the crabs are round and creamy.” The poet-painter Xu Wei of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), devout “foodie,” also echoed his love for the crustacean in his “Footnote to Crab Painting,” "The rice ripens while crabs are battling the mud. If we turn them over on a piece of paper, we can see they too are ready to be eaten.” Over the dynasties and many generations, endless praise has been left and many literary masters have succumbed to that sweetly fresh taste of crabs. Su Dongpo (1037–1101, one of the “Eight Masters of Tang and Song”) once wrote, “The best delicacies are the boneless meat from the pork neck and a crab's pincers.”
Not only has the humble crab found itself the protagonist of poems, but paintings as well. In truth, the image of a crab perfectly matches traditional Chinese painting aesthetics. Zheng Banqiao, famous Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) painter, wrote a poem on a painting, describing that while crabs may look wild and terrible, but are the best cuisine to pair with ginger and vinegar. In his most famous calligraphic work “Ignorance Is Bliss,” the characters look strikingly like a crab running across the canvas with legs outstretched.
Crabs are not merely delicious cuisine. They are often mentioned in classic literary works. In A Dream of the Red Mansions, Cao Xueqin (1715–1764) also wrote of a crab's delights, “The crabs are so fleshy and juicy, claws are full of meat and shells full of roe and cream. It is a true joy to taste crabs with ginger and vinegar in the shade of a fragrant osmanthus tree.” His vivid description of the crab gathering and appreciation for sweetscented osmanthus has become the most famous ode to crabs.
The Chinese, with their love of exploring the beauty of food, also attach great importance to the tools and devices of that pursuit, such as cups, glasses, bowls and saucers. Partaking in crabs is no different, with a special “eight-tool set” designed for the job. When the set was invented in ancient times, it was made of metal and consisted of hammer, spoon, scraper, hook, “axe”, fork, tweezers, and a small square table. Made of gold, silver or copper, the exquisite appearance and ease to use of these sets added function and delight to the consumption of crab. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, literati often gathered to taste crabs, taking along their own tools and drinking wine, writing poems and painting. Gatherings for crab tasting became a popular activity during the peak of autumn.
Yet it is the crab gourmet who makes the savouring of crabs a genuine matter of elegance. For those who love eating hairy crabs today, it is a matter of pride (and taste) to take their time cracking into the shell, first decorating the environment of the feast, carefully selecting dishes and dinnerware, preparing yellow rice wine or hot ginger tea and different kinds of vinegar… For the gourmand, all such matters require meticulous and patient preparations.
One would be remiss in speaking of hairy crabs without mentioning the people of Shanghai. Shanghai locals' love for hairy crabs is just as ardent as Beijingers' for zhajiang mian (fried sauce noodles) or the Sichuan people's love for fish fillets in hot chili oil. Shanghai locals savour hairy crabs carefully with exquisite tools. With their standard eighteen-tool set, each tool has a unique purpose. With the help of these tools, a crab is enjoyed with every bite. Even the meat within the crab legs is picked carefully with a needle or awl. As the anecdote goes, a Shanghai local, taking a train from Shanghai to Urumqi, (about 4,000 kilometres) begins eating a crab when the train sets off; and just as the train completes its long journey, the passenger has just finished eating the crab. The bounty of a crab has made its way into several dishes in Shanghai. For example, crab roe can be cooked with tofu or meat balls and filled into small steamed buns. Crabs are also a popular seasonal dish in Huaiyang cuisine.
During the height of autumn, the city air often owes its extraordinary aroma to the cooked hairy crabs. There is no better time to invite several friends to share crabs and satisfy the taste buds with each relaxing and refreshing bite. In these golden days of autumn when a breeze goes by, the sense of happiness lingers on our lips, on our teeth and in our minds.