I’ve just discovered the perfect dish to make in Beijing and it’s none other than the hairy crab (大闸蟹)! When my friends first mooted the idea of making our own hairy crab dish, I was a little doubtful as cooking crabs seem to be a lot of work. It turns out, the preparation process was pretty straightforward and the dish was rewarding. Unlike typical mud or softshell crabs, hairy crabs have a lot more roe and the roe is also more flavourful. The price of a hairy crab bought at a supermarket is about half (or even one quarter) the price of a hairy crab purchased at a restaurant. Here are three reasons to cook hairy crabs in Beijing and how to go about it.
Why you should cook hairy crabs in Beijing
1. Availability and convenience
In China, hairy crab is a seasonal produce and is mostly available during the fall, from September to October. Hairy crab is part of Shanghainese cuisine, but many supermarkets in Beijing carry fresh crabs and they are not expensive. Selecting a fresh one is not difficult – you can ask for advice from the supermarket staff. Cooking the crabs is a straightforward process. Simply clean and then steam them for 15 minutes. You can also make a simple vinegar sauce to go with the crab.
According to Time Out Beijing, it costs about RMB200 to eat these crabs at good restaurants. At supermarkets, the price is about half and in some cases, one quarter the price.
My view is that the taste of the crab roe is extremely flavourful and good on its own. Therefore, it would be difficult for restaurants to add value to the crab in terms of taste. The only benefit you get from eating at the restaurant is the convenience of not having to clean up after eating. I also thought that the hairy crab goes well with simple dishes like stir-fried vegetables, which is what you can easily make to accompany this dish.
How to go about preparing hairy crab
1. Buying the crabs – the difference between the roe of both male and female crabs
We went to the 7FRESH supermarket in 五彩城 （Haidian）to buy the crabs. This was probably the best supermarket closest to the apartment I had rented out. The supermarket had a good selection and the produce was fresh. Crab selection was easy. There were bigger crabs on offer at RMB100 for 4, and smaller crabs at RMB100 for 8. We decided to try both types. The crabs were divided into both male and female. Both have roe – male crabs are said to have less roe, but the roe is more moist and creamier. The roe of female crabs is darker coloured and are more solid. I prefer softer, creamier roe, but both male and female crabs tasted pretty good to me. The supermarket staff at 7FRESH helped us choose the crabs. She did so by tapping on them to make sure they were alive.
2. Washing the crabs
The crabs should be alive or killed right before you steam them. Do not let them out of their strings while washing. We had a crab which broke free from the bamboo strings that held its pincers together. It slightly unnerving as it attempted to crawl out of the kitchen sink. I had to kill it by flipping it on the other side, and putting the knife through the top middle section. It was an intense process as the pincer grabbed the knife as soon as it went through. Just as I thought the crab was dead and was about to pull out the knife, the crab used its pincer to grab the chopstick which was holding it down.
We were cooking 16 crabs and decided that a more humane way would be to pour a Chinese baijiu 白酒 over them before cooking them. That helped to keep many of them calm. Before placing the live crabs in the steamer, line it with slices of ginger to remove any seafood smell. You can also make a sauce comprising vinegar, sugar, cooking wine and water.
3. Steaming the crabs
My pot took a fairly long time to boil, and one of the crabs broke free from the bamboo string in the pot and tried to get out. It might have gotten out as its pincers were super close to the glass lid. While some websites recommend steaming the crabs starting with room temperature water, my suggestion is to steam them starting with hot water especially if you pot takes a long while to heat up. It took us about 15 minutes to steam four crabs. We had 16 crabs so in an ideal situation, we would have taken about an hour to steam all of them. When the crab is cooked, it will turn orange.
4. Eating the crabs
First pull open the crab from the bottom. Do not eat the lungs as that’s considered not to be edible (possibly because it acts as a filer for the crab). I personally enjoy eating just the roe and some of the meat, and that’s it. You can dip the crab in a little bit of vinegar sauce as well.
The Travelling Squid’s Take
Hairy crab is one of the dishes in China that I’ve come to enjoy. It’s also really easy to cook on your own. Highly recommend that you make the dish yourself if you have access to a kitchen in Beijing. Let me know how it goes!