Every few days our team will scour Shanghai’s dining scene for scrumptious dishes that’ll fill your belly without emptying your savings. Not to discriminate, we’ll search everywhere from bicycle carts to chic venues with twenty-course tasting menus, knowing that any spot could have the next Dish of the Day.
The fattest part of hairy crab season is here, and you’re no doubt teeming with questions. Do I really have to shell out 500RMB at a hotel for a real Yangcheng Lake hairy crab? Those crabs sold in the baskets on the street for 20RMB a piece can’t be authentic, can they? Here’s the skinny:
Most people tucking into the famed Yangcheng Lake variety [of hairy crab] will probably be eating high-priced fakes.
Traders admit that even crabs served in lakeside restaurants are unlikely to be genuine Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs – defined as those raised in the lake for at least six months – Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post reported.
Most of the crustaceans sold as Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs on the mainland are actually grown in other waters. Some are known as “bathing crabs” because they spend a short time – several hours to a couple of weeks – in the lake before being passed off as the genuine article.
So whether your crabs are crammed in street baskets, sold out of vending machines like Snickers bars, or arrayed on white linen at 5-star hotels, they’re likely all fugazis. And hairy crab counterfeiting has become quite elaborate over the years; you don’t simply glue your hair clippings to a Dungeness:
While the genuine article [Yangcheng Lake crab] is celebrated for its golden carapace, pure white belly shell and glistening roe, fakes are now being treated with “crab washing powder” to make their bellies turn white.
However, the most effective counterfeiting technique is the use of fake or falsely applied anti-counterfeit tags.
Since 2005, the Suzhou Crab Business Association has required each Yangcheng Lake hairy crab to be marked with a plastic ring attached to one of its claws bearing a unique 12-digit code. But the campaign has proved to be toothless.
The tag is usually distributed to local farmers when the crabs are harvested, but no one checks to see whether they actually attach them. Some farmers opt not to use the tags when dealing with regular customers who trust them and plan to eat the crabs immediately. Some sell the unused tags to other traders for about three yuan each.
The challenge now is finding quality crabs, Yangcheng Lake or not, and for a decent price. So forget the hotels and street baskets and head to Tongchuan Road Seafood Market (we promise this is the last time).
The Tongchuan Road vendors closest to the metro station sell both “Yangcheng Lake” crabs and ones from the neighboring Tai Lake. You’ll want to buy the roe-laden Yangcheng Lake females, which you can buy in the small (38-50RMB), medium (70-200RMB), or large (200-300RMB) sizes. All prices can be bargained down, we bought two small females for a total of 45RMB. And having them steamed at a nearby restaurant (we’ve listed our favorites in the past) costs you a measly 5RMB.
To open a hairy crab, tuck two fingers under the belly flap, pull it back and pop the top shell up like the trunk of a car. If done correctly, the sheeny green-black head underneath will be fully intact. Eat this away to unveil a pool of buttery, salmon-colored tomalley and darker orange roe.
Rip off the feathery gills lining the sides of the carapace and down the entire shell-full of eggs and tomalley like a shot of whiskey. Then split the crab in half and attack the meat where the legs meet the shell or “lump meat.” Crack the claws by biting down on the widest part, and use the hook-like leg-tips to fish the needles of meat out of the claw fingers. Trust us, the tedious dissection will be worth it.
Tongchuan Road Seafood Market – Tongchuan Road, near Lanxi Road (海鲜美食街, 铜川路, 近兰溪路). Closest Metro Stop: Zhenru (真如) Line 11.
Last time on Dish of the Day: Good Fortune Characteristic Spring Fried Rice @ Chunfu Shui Jiao
See a complete list of our Dish of the Day series here.
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