Today is the day I am going to tackle two things I’ve never done before.
1. I’m planning to cook my own Shanghai hairy crab for lunch, because reader Adeline suggested it and she is a woman full of good ideas.
2. I will tackle my slight phobia about cooking live crustaceans. For good.
This should be interesting.
8.10am. I cycle to the wet market to choose my hairy crabs. We’re in the second half of the annual three month long hairy crab-eating festival here in Shanghai – a magical time of late autumn when the click-clack of little claws can be heard on every pavement as the crabs try to make their unsuccessful escapes from tubs and buckets, having made the pilgrimage to Shanghai from nearby shallow lakes to fulfill every foodie’s dream – a feast of hairy crab.
Last week I dropped by the old-fashioned wet market on the corner of Taiyuan Lu and Jianguo Lu to check out their hairy crabs and ask a few questions ahead of today’s purchase. The crabs certainly looked the business – lovely olive green shells, shiny bright eyes on stalks, nice little furry mittens on their claws, very lively. Having totally given up on the idea of buying the famed Yancheng Lake hairy crabs because there are so many fakes and imposters around, I have opted instead for regular old unmarked, unbranded, un-microchipped hairy crabs, four boys and four girls.
The crab lady helps me choose by easing up the breast plate of each crab to show that the females are full of yolky orange roe, and the males are full of….something. Crab sperm? I nod sagely as she shows me the pale white underbelly.
Once chosen the eight crabs get a thorough going over with a rough scrubbing brush, an action that has the effect of subduing them sufficiently so they can be concertina folded into a small tight bundle and wrapped with twine, a feat the crab lady achieves by holding one end of the twine between her teeth for tension.
8.56am. I cycle back to the wet market to take photographs of the crabs being tied up. Can’t believe I forgot my camera the first time.
Girls on the left, boys on the right
9.20am. Once back home I put the crabs in the coldest part of the refrigerator to help them have a nice little sleep and go back out buy a winter coat for myself. Today the temperature has suddenly plunged and I know if I don’t get one today they’ll all be gone and I’ll end up with a hideous shiny purple puffa coat. I’ve calculated that by the time I get home in two hours all eight crabs will be snoring away in a sort of crustacean suspended animation, making their subsequent cooking as painless as possible.
12.40pm. Arrive home, ravenous. Coat purchasing took a lot longer than expected because every other person in Shanghai has had the same idea. Buggers. The thought of ten minutes’ wait for the crabs to cook seems so long! I put the water for the steamer on to boil and pull the crabs, hopefully blissfully unconscious, out of the refrigerator. As I open the bag they make small busy noises and eight pairs of bright little crab eyes open up and poke out at me. They’re wide awake and if they weren’t neatly tied up they would probably have made themselves a cosy home on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator using the butter dish as a sofa. I’m battling life-threatening hunger but I decide this should be done humanely, so I take the pot off the heat, put the crabs into the freezer, and eat a yoghurt.
1.12pm. I google ‘kind and fast ways to kill crabs’
1.13pm. Google replies with thousands of sites about unwanted lice and how to get rid of some garden weed called crabgrass that can apparently invade your lawn. Useless, google! Further down, I see something on the RSPCA website. Surely the RSPCA will know a thing or two about killing crabs kindly!
It turns out they do, to the tune of a six page document titled ‘Humane electrical stun/killing of crustacea’. It makes for horrific reading and I feel guilty just skimming over it, with its underlying judgmental tones. In fact, I’m probably right now on some international register of crustacea-vores just for downloading the PDF. I bet they’re all vegetarians.
If you must kill a crustacean, the RSPCA suggests using a Crustastun™
humane shellfish electro-stun/kill machine. That’s its real name too. It looks a little like a sandwich toaster or a panini press, with a lot more voltage. I go to their website but can’t figure out how much one costs, or whether they deliver to China.
Not having immediate and ready access to a Crustastun™ I read pages four, five and six of the RSPCA document. For those unfortunate enough not to have a Crustastun™in the cupboard next to the sausage machine and the olive pitter, they suggest the ‘mechanical destruction technique’, involving the use of a long sharp knife and a detailed anatomical diagram identifying the crab’s two main nerve centres. They also mention having ‘dedicated trained competent operatives’ perform this task. I decide I am only slightly dedicated and definitely untrained and incompetent, so not up to the task.
I read on. Lunch is looking further and further away every minute. The RSPCA throws me a small tattered lifeline. As a third, very poor option, the crabs can be rendered ‘insensible’ by freezing them for two hours ‘gradually’ to ‘avoid osmotic shock.’
1.22pm. I put the crabs in the freezer.
2.17pm. I’m very, very hungry and the rest of the family is taunting me with fresh crusty bread and cheese. I resist. I take the crabs back out of the freezer to check for signs of insensibility. They poke their eyes out brightly as if to say ‘godDAMM it’s cold in there! No! Don’t put us back! No!’
I put them back in the freezer.
3pm. I’ve just finished a banana with a TimTam chocolate biscuit chaser. I’m feeling a bit less light-headed and have resolved some of my inner ethical dilemmas so I go to work on the dipping sauce mandatory with hairy crab. I check the crabs again. Only two of the eight fulfil the RSPCAs criteria for ‘insensible’, meaning that when I tap on the shell they don’t move or open their eyes. Bloody Chinese freezers. Bloody RSPCA. Back they go.
3.46pm. Desperation. I try the crabs one last time. By now they’re probably frozen solid. Certainly all the meat I’ve had to remove from the freezer to make way for the hairy crabs has completely defrosted, so at least I’ll have a back-up plan if the crabs don’t work out.
They look asleep. I tap the shells and one of the eight drowsily pokes his eyes out. Bugger. Back he goes in the freezer, and I crank up the heat on the steamer and put the other seven in the steamer basket, on their backs as advised, on a comfortable bed of ginger slices and scallion leaves, also as advised. I clamp the lid on and worry slightly about their insensible nerve centres as I race to the next room for ten minutes’ respectful silence. Also, the rest of the family have left the house so there’s no-one to talk to.
3.56pm I tentatively lift the lid. The crabs come out of the steamer a deep orange. Wafts of ginger and sweet crab smell. No discernible movement.
I cut the strings off and apart from a small terrifying moment where one claw springs out at me and my inner 10 year old girl screams, while my inner 42 year old says ‘for gawd’s sake it’s DEAD’ they look and smell perfectly cooked. I retrieve the silver hairy crab tools purchased specially for this occasion – a pair of pliers and cutters in one, and an elegant double ended tool for retrieving the tiniest bits of meat.
4.06pm. Lunch. I tie a tea towel around my neck. On my left, a plate with seven hairy crab, four girls, three boys. In front, a dish of sweet vinegar and ginger dipping sauce. I crack open the first crab, revealing the sweet shards of white flesh and the golden, oily, buttery roe. I remove the feathery gills then eat the meat bit by bit. Unbelievably good. The clean fresh crab taste is so perfect I hardly use the dipping sauce at all.
4.41pm. On my left, a pile of detritus. In front, a pile of detritus and a very dirty camera. On my right, a pile of crablegs and claws too small to get anything out of. I can barely move and there are smears of crab roe all over my hands, clothes, and face. I didn’t actually intend to eat all seven hairy crabs but they are really truly quite small. And I only do it once a year…..
Wonder which cupboard I could squeeze that Crustastun™ into??
Tips for cooking hairy crab
- Unless you want an Annie Hall moment, keep them tied up until after they’re cooked
- Lay them on their backs during cooking to keep the delcious juices in
- Steam for ten to thirteen minutes in a bamboo steamer depending on weight
- Cut the strings and serve while still hot, with a side dish of ginger vinegar dipping sauce and a finger bowl
- Consider serving the traditional accompaniment to hairy crab – warmed Shaoxing wine
Dipping Sauce for Hairy Crab
- 50 ml Zhenjiang vinegar
- 100ml water
- 4 tsp sugar
- pinch salt
- 2 tablespoons very finely shredded ginger
- Gently heat ingredients until sugar is dissolved
- Cool before serving