Hairy Crabs Have Taken Over East China


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Hairy Crabs Have Taken Over East China

The Chinese mitten crab, or hairy crab, has its spiny, fur-adorned claw clamped firmly around eastern China because of its prized gooey orange roe. But some people think these fuzzy little guys are destructive pests.

Eriocheir sinensis—more popularly known as the Chinese mitten crab or hairy crab—has its spiny, fur-adorned claw clamped firmly around eastern China. The scuttly freshwater things, named da zha xie in Mandarin, seem to be everywhere. They are arranged in orderly regiments in every supermarket and can be found pinging around in water tanks in every fishmonger's, with their distinctive silhouettes stickered on every grocery and convenience shop window.


This is because of the happy coincidence of the maturation of the crabs' prized roe—the gooey orange egg mass they house—coinciding annually with China's Golden Week national holiday. With the females' roe maturing around two weeks before the early-October break, the pairing has become as tightly-clamped as turkey and British Christmas.

All photos courtesy of Jamie Fullerton

Unlike default dry turkey meat, though, this unification has been strengthened by deliciousness. While turkey survives (or rather, doesn't) by tradition rather than taste, hairy crabs, so-called because of their brilliantly/petrifyingly furry legs, are delicacies rather than just calendar signifiers.


They are not so popular in Europe, where they are considered destructive pests. In Scotland, sightings of the species earlier this year led to fears that the marauding critters, which are unfussy eaters and hugely resilient, had their claws pointed at the local salmon population. "They can grow to the size of a dinner plate, and are listed as one of the world's worst 100 alien species," a BBC News report declared. "They eat native species, they destroy river banks, they eat fish eggs."

The crabs were accused of causing millions of pounds worth of damage to dams in Germany in 2012. Last year, the Germans started exporting the controversial crustaceans to China as the latter country's supply lowered, possibly due to increased pollution.


Sales in China have been down this year, probably because of President Xi Jinping's clampdown on luxury consumption for government officials. Many of those feeling the crab pinch are based at Yangcheng Lake, which is found a short drive from the Shanghai satellite city of Kunshan and supports hundreds of hairy crab farmers and restaurateurs. Despite the slowdown in sales, the area still teems with wholesale sellers—plus tourists keen to head to the source.


Eager to learn more about this equally maligned and loved creature (and of course to eat loads of it), I headed to the main crab farmer strip next to the lake. Yao Jinliang of the Xiao Yao Xie Fangcrab farming company was happy to show me his scuttling stash.


Caught in the nearby lake and then transferred to their blue mesh prisons, the hairy crabs peacefully nibbled on fish heads and swung from the ceiling of their gender-divided cages. Yao said he sold around 40,000-50,000 hairy crabs last year, and although he was concerned about the reports of lower sales it was too early in the season to say if he was going to have a dud 2014.


He explained that the females are larger than the males and have a different taste, as well as having more roe at this time of year because they mature earlier than males. Above, a lady crab.

And here's a man crab.


After I selected one male and one female to buy for 130 Yuan (£13), Yao folded up their worryingly sharp legs and claws…


…And expertly tied them up, ready for transportation.


From there I went to the main restaurant strip of the area. Yangcheng Lake recently housed a bunch of swanky floating restaurants, but their environmental affect on the lake led to their closure. Instead, they've been replaced by unsightly building slabs.

The chefs at the Xin Qian Xi restaurant agreed to cook up my haul, with the waitress suggesting the common, minimalist approach of steaming the crabs and serving them with vinegar and ginger so the focus was on the meat rather than superfluous sauce.


According to Chinese tradition, hairy crab meat is an incredibly cooling substance, so needs to be paired with heating food, hence the ginger.


There are various methods of attacking a cooked, shelled crab, but it's always best to start by gently prying open its front. Doing this to an in-season hairy crab exposes the golden, gooey roe. It tasted sublime: rich and yolky, pleasingly gloopy. I almost wanted to shove some toast into it.


After the roe is devoured, anything goes to access the rest of the tender white meat (although the tempting lungs are a no-no). Paired with the ginger and vinegar, it tasted great. Yet despite not reaching peak eating time until next month, the flesh justified its local gourmet reputation eaten without condiments. It was especially impressive when you consider that in Europe it's basically considered to be the crustacean equivalent of a rat or pigeon.


These crabs may not be found at high-end government banquets so much these days, but China's widespread love for them should mean that its future as the taste of Golden Week is still relatively stable. Scotland and Germany can hate all they want, but after tasting that roe, I'm warmly embracing the hairy crab.

Or, rather, I'm carefully holding its shell with my finger and thumb so it can't slice off one of my digits before I can steam-cook and devour it.