Hairy crab season (Dàzháxiè, 大闸蟹) is one of the most anticipated culinary events of the year in Shanghai. City citizens (and gourmands around Asia) eagerly wait for that ninth and tenth month of the lunar year – generally between late September and early November – when the crabs are at their fattest and most delectable. Also prized is the bright orange roe inside the males and females, which is gorgeously rich – reminiscent of sea urchin or foie gras. The little crustaceans are, in general, quite small, which makes it time consuming to get to their sweet, silky flesh. But hairy crab enthusiasts don’t care. They’ll spend hours around the table with friends, sucking meat from each tiny leg, sipping warm Chinese brandy (huángjiǔ, 黄酒), and in general reveling in this autumn speciality. If you’re in the city during the season, you’d be silly not to join in on the fun. Here are a few ways to take part in this delicious feeding frenzy – and don’t worry, some dishes let others pick the crab for you.
At least one of your eating experiences should be a simple basket of hairy crabs, bound in twine (so the legs don’t fall off when cooked) and steamed with ginger until the carapace turns russet red. There is something immensely satisfying about cracking open the shell and dipping each bit of meat into the accompanying ginger-infused vinegar. The process demands patience. As with many Chinese dishes (chicken feet, lambs neck, etc), consumption is as much about the experience as it is actually getting full. Don’t forget to pair it with that Chinese brandy. According to traditional Chinese medicine, crab meat is dangerously cooling, so you need to eat lots of ginger and drink lots of warm wine to stay internally balanced. Try them at Shanghai’s oldest restaurant, Wang Bao He, which originally made its name for wine and crabs in the 1800s.
For more adventurous eaters, drunken crab (zuì xiè, 醉蟹）should be a go-to treat. The traditional dish drowns a live crab in a mixture of yellow wine, sugar, salt, oil and vinegar and allows it to sit in the mixture for a full 24 hours. The result is essentially somewhere between crab sashimi and ceviche, the insides turned vaguely gelatinous after its alcoholic soak, and infused through with a saucy marinade. Highly alcoholic, these delicacies are not for children, but adults can enjoy them at Old Jesse’s Restaurant. The long-time local staple is famous for its traditional Shanghainese dishes, and the drunken crab does not disappoint.
While the meat of hairy crab is divine, its roe is even more precious. The bright orange jewels are unctuous and buttery, and are often featured in dishes on their own merit (greatly driving up the price of the dish). When you combine roe with crab meat and gorgeous, shaking silken tofu, you have a dish (xièfěn dòufu, 蟹粉豆腐) fit for a queen, featuring flavors at once rich and refined. For one of the best crab roe tofu renditions, head to famous crab restaurant Cheng Long Hang Xie Wangfu, which serves a perfectly cooked version that sings when you splash a bit of vinegar on top to highlight the crustaceans’ sweetness.
A beautiful solution to the finicky art of crab eating is to have someone else do the shelling, and eating the results tangled over a bed of luscious noodles. For the best of the best hairy crab noodles (xièròu miàn, 蟹肉面) head to Cejerdary, a zen-like, 18-person spot where patient chefs shell 12 crabs per bowl. The meat is gently cooked, splashed with subtle vinegar and served in a cloud of luxury. A bowl will cost you about USD12 but every mouthful is worth it. For something even more upscale, try the version sprinkled with gold leaf. We’re not convinced the flavor changes, but it sure does look festive.
Combine two Shanghai specialties into one and you have the finest steamed soup dumplings man has ever created. You can find fine dumplings filled with crab meat at the venerable international chain Din Tai Fung (started in Taiwan by a Shanghainese migrant, and now back again). For a more local experience, try the crab roe pork dumplings (xièhuáng xiǎolóng, 蟹黄小笼) at Fuchun Xiaolong Restaurant. This is another one of those venerable old-time places that is always buzzing, and features excellent food and remarkably grumpy service . Go to the front stand, order your dumplings and hand the stub to a roving waitress. Then elbow your way onto a stool. Soon, your basket of goodness will arrive, and world will be right again.
With all these options, it can be hard to know where to start (Which restaurant? Which end of the body?). To get the crab party going, check out UnTour Food Tours (China’s top-ranked culinary tour company) which has launched a seasonal Shanghai Hairy Crab Feast for the months of October and November. Tastings include two types of crab soup dumplings, wontons in crab broth, lion’s head meatballs crowned with roe, a duo of whole crabs and more. The tour also includes a tutorial on the best way to crack into the crabs, as well as a Chinese brandy pairing. Check our their schedules here.