Hairy crab season is once again sweeping Shanghai’s diners into a frenzy, with the bristly crustaceans popping up on street corners, in streetside wet markets and, most importantly, on dinner plates. This year we’ve even seen reports of elaborate live crab vending machines hitting the streets in Nanjing and an attempt to start a black-market trade in German crabs.
Since the crabs, also known as “mitten crabs,” are considered pests in Europe, an enterprising German exporter attempted to pre-sell a shipment through the online portal juhuasuan.com. Mainlanders ordered more than RMB 9 million worth of the crustaceans before authorities put a stop to sales. It seems the German company had not attempted to follow any quarantine or inspections certificate procedures needed for live animal importation – and locals won’t consider buying crabs that aren’t alive and still foaming at the mouth.
To the uninitiated, it may be hard to see the crab’s appeal. While locals deftly pick and paw their way through the shell and small appendages, the amount of work required to get at the meat can make the seasonal ritual seem more like a chore. The most common complaint continues to be the lack of payoff for all the picking, sucking and slurping – just 1-2 tablespoons of white meat, and a dollop of golden roe. Traditionally steamed with fresh ginger until the shells turn a glowing orange, the crabs are then cracked and dipped in ginger-infused Zhenjiang vinegar for an intensely satisfying shared culinary experience with friends and family, if you make the effort.
So what’s a hungry, but perhaps lazy or pressed-for-time diner to do? We’ve got a few options where the crab is an integral part of signature dishes, but doesn’t require any extra effort.
Jinxian Lu has become a destination for home-style Shanghainese dining, but Hai Jinzi stands out in the crowd, and the line out the door at lunchtime proves it. Their signature dish, crab roe scrambled eggs (蟹粉蛋, xièfěn dàn), is something we’ve never seen recreated with such perfection. Light crabmeat with golden roe is stir-fried together with eggs kept purposefully runny – ditch the chopsticks and grab a spoon for this one. Topped off with a healthy dash of vinegar, this sour highlight brings out the sweetness of the crab. Try the other Shanghai-sweet specialties like scallion pork chops (葱烤大排, cōng kǎo dàpái) and red braised “lion’s head” meatballs (红烧狮子头, hóngshāo shīzi tóu).
Cheng Long Hang Xie Wangfu
This Shanghai institution makes its living off crab dishes year-round, but is truly bustling during hairy crab season. Diners can be found cracking shells in a range of small semiprivate rooms and alcoves surrounding a faux inner courtyard in this venue set in a historic area near the Bund.
In addition to a wide selection of steamed, pre-shelled crabs on offer (大闸蟹, dàzháxiè), Cheng Long serves up a great version of crab roe soup dumplings (蟹粉小笼包, xièfěn xiǎo lóng bāo). Encased in a delicately thin, almost translucent wrapper, the broth is imbued with the roe’s rich flavors, making for a lovely change from the traditional pork variety commonly found around town.
Shi Mian Mai Fu
Popular with stylish young locals, this noodle joint focuses on seafood, bumping the tariff up past your typical hole-in-the wall prices. The name, meaning “to be ambushed on all sides,” is a reference to the 2004 film House of Flying Daggers, and diners find themselves surrounded by seafood dishes and almost nothing else. We loved the stir-fried glutinous rice cakes (三鲜炒糕, sānxiān chǎo gāo), featuring crabmeat, roe, shrimp and bean sprouts in just a touch of broth. Their crab noodle soup (膏蟹汤面, gāoxiè tāngmiàn) is another popular pick, with a steaming bowl on just about every table. Both dishes come with a semi-hollowed-out carapace neatly sitting atop the noodles, staring back at you, begging to be devoured.
This feature was originally published on October 15, 2013.