Hunting for Hong Kong's hairy crab

The hairy crab is steeped in folklore, and with only a small seasonal window Hong Kong makes the most of this mysterious seafood delicacy.

Australia's favourite food blogger, Not Quite Nigella, aka Lorraine Elliott, discovers the best way to dissect a local treat.

You often hear that eating seasonally is better, and this makes total sense. But some countries do this more naturally than others. Austria has asparagus season, Italy has chestnut season and in Hong Kong one of their many seasonal treats is the September-November eating of the hairy crab. What is so special about a crab and what is a hairy crab? Hairy crab is available for just a few months of the year and unlike regular crab where you usually request a female for the flavoursome roe, the hairy crab’s male specimen is prized for the unusual "egg yolk” inside.

Shanghai’s hairy crabs or mitten crabs are so named for the dense, black furry patches of hair on their largest pincers. Small and served steamed, these crabs are known for being prolific procreators capable of withstanding polluted conditions and tolerating heavy metals. In Europe, they are considered a pest and in America, their population is closely monitored as they often dominate their environment potentially destroying other species. In London, alerts were broadcast that there had been sightings of the hairy crab emerging from the Thames River, and the Natural History Museum sent out press releases telling people that they were edible.

hairy crab hong kong

These crabs are said to be from the cold Lake Yeung Ching in China although there is discussion about whether they actually come from there as it is said to be quite polluted. The cost of the actual crab is about $HK50 ($A6) for a 3oz crab or $100HKD/$A12.30 for an 8 oz crab. They’re not too costly for a season crab delicacy.

We’re at Superstar Seafood Restaurant in Hong Kong’s Harbour City and we weave through the maze of shops ooohing and aaahing over the different brands, many of which we just don’t get in Sydney. But our mission this evening is not about shopping and shoes, but about snaring these prized crabs before the season finishes, or at least doing some serious operations on them as suggested by our table setting. For each diner there’s a pair of scissors, some plastic gloves, a crab poker, two sets of chopsticks (one to help yourself to the shared food and one to eat with) and a crab fork. Around us are tables with couples in snug, cute little booths and other larger groups, but what they all have in common are the telltale plastic gloves.

hairy crab hong kong

Our set menu is $HK399 ($A50) per person and for that we’ll get a range of dishes and desserts including three hairy crabs: one female and two male. Our guide, Fred shows us how to tell the difference between a male and a female crab – the male has a triangular tab while a female’s is round. To eat a crab, you have to don the gloves and break off or cut off the legs. Fred then shows us the best way to eat these hairy creatures.

The Chinese never eat the tiny small jellied part underneath the crab because they believe that this lowers their temperature so they remove it. It’s hard to locate and is very small – oops, once I forgot it and ate it. Crab is said to be yin which means that it cools the body so it is always served with hot tea. After removing the legs, you then pull apart the shell and cut the body in half. Dip it in the black vinegar, an essential part of the flavour, and eat or pick away at the soft meat with the little tool.

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