It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
From drunken shrimp to drunken chicken to drunken snails, Shanghai has so many inebriated eats that you could get soused without having a drop to drink. Since we’re at the juiciest portion of hairy crab season, the go-to is drunken hairy crab, raw hairy crab soaked in rice wine.
DRUNKEN HAIRY CRAB (醉毛蟹, zuì máo xiè)
Tasted at: Cheng Long Hang Xie Wang Fu // 216 Jiujiang Lu, near Henan Zhong Lu (九江路216号, 近河南中路). Tel: (0)21-6321-2010. Closest metro stop: East Nanjing Road (南京东路) Line 1/10
Hairy crab unshelled
You might not believe a crustacean that fetches up to 500 yuan at banquet halls, and that’s counterfeited more than Gucci purses, was allegedly once shunned by China’s elite. Pre-Zhou dynasty, hairy crabs were peasant fodder like lobsters in New England in the 1800s, which were so lowly that indentured servants stipulated in their contracts they’d only eat the crustaceans twice a week.
But, as the story goes, upper class finally tried hairy crab, deemed them delicious, and jacked up the prices, ruining them for poor people like us forever.
Bountiful crab banquets meant bountiful leftovers, which were preserved in rice wine.
“Hair of the crab”
You’ll find two main recipes in Shanghai. The first, Shanghai style entails submerging live critters in a jar with Shaoxing wine, sugar, salt, oil, and ginger for a full day – a wino’s wet dream but a brutal end for the crab, which essentially dies of alcohol poisoning. The sauce courses through it’s carapace, rendering it a sweet, vinegary vessel.
The other version surprisingly hails from Ningbo, where hairy crabs don’t even live. Shanghai’s Ningbo immigrants couldn’t stomach the sweet Shanghai rendition, so they applied their recipe for drunken sea crab to hairy crab (culinary cross-pollination like you see with Chinese immigrants in the US using Chinese seasonings for dungeness crab and Atlantic lobster ie, Lobster Cantonese.) The Ningbo version is essentially the same, minus the sugar, and with heaps more salt.
Where to get it
Both types are found at Cheng Long Hang Xie Wang Fu, a historic haunt that evokes what you’d get if Bubba Gump dealt in crab instead of shrimp with crab xiaolongbao, crab soup, crab meat in hollowed-out oranges, crab encased in crab-shaped jellies, and of course drunken crab.
Your drunken crab arrives looking glossy, wet, and alive. No joke, I initially thought they were swinging an actual live specimen by our table for approval before steaming it. And the Ningbo version (“Palace Salted Crab,” 68RMB) might as well have been.
I unhinged the shell and drank its juices, which felt like knocking back a tumbler of sea water. The meat was a slimy, translucent jelly rather than the white slivers of cooked crab, and reminded me of well, raw crab – not sashimi, but a crab that you fished from a tide pool and started crunching. The only elements the drunken state seems to enhance are the brightness and creaminess of the orange roe.
After you finish the drunken Ningbo crab you’re going to need a chaser. And ironically nothing’s better than Shanghai drunken crab (“ChenLongHang Chilled Crab with Wine Marinade,” 68RMB) whose sweetness quells the salinity, and whose liquor prolongs your buzz. This version is fairly liquor-logged so you’ll taste the acidic rice wine.
Drunken crab may not be the for the faint of palate, but it has rich, practical origins, and an even richer flavor. Just don’t dine and drive.
Last time on Off the Beaten Palate: Sheep penis, testicles, stomach and other ‘offal’ bits
See a complete list of our Off the Beaten Palate series here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].