Steamed Crabs: Sea­sonal De­light

Beijing (English) - - CONTENTS - Trans­lated by Re­becca Lou Edited by Scott Bray

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.

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