November 27, 2013

Steamed Hairy Crab 清蒸大閘蟹

Steamed Hairy Crab 清蒸大閘蟹

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By Published: 2013-11-27
Autumn leaves do not fall in Hong Kong (because we have no trees!), but the Hairy Crabs, 大閘蟹, seem to fall out of the sky, carpeting our city streets as the northern winds begin to blow.  Everywhere you look now it is hairy crabs:  the supermarket, the wet market, the street side shops temporarily transformed over to exclusively sell the little mittened crabs.  These little crabs, distinctive by the brown fur merrily coating their front pinchers, are originally from Yangcheng Lake and Tai Wu Lake (where my daddy grew up!) in Jiangsu province.  Nowadays these hairy critters are the impetus behind a huge annual gastronomic money making affair.  Gastronomic because the hairy crabs are revered for their richly fragrant roe and succulent golden fat.  Money making because the crabs are very expensive, costing from 100-400  HKD each!  But hey, what's the use of money if we can't use it to satisfy our every culinary desire...

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Look at that unctuous crab roe and golden fat!

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Hairy Crabs after steaming
Alas! The thing is... even after spending those hard earned bucks...  Well, the problem we have always had in eating the Hairy Crab is that we never actually really thought it was as stupendously good as it was supposed to be.  Hearing the older generation talk about eating hairy crab 'back in the day' it seemed that Hairy Crab was seriously a food one could swoon over.  However, whenever we ate Hairy Crab, I found it pretty good, but just not stupendously, faintingly good.  I suspect that many people nowadays may secretly feel that way and not admit it because, you know, why be the wet blanket at the dining table, right?

So this year we were vacillating.  To buy or not to buy? I was leaning towards not to buy because it just seemed not worth it.  But my 老公 started to tell me about rumors of a european Hairy Crab, whose hoary ancestors long ago crept abroad the opium ships and thus traveled in secrecy to the Old World to thrive until the present day.  These Hairy Crabs are considered pests in Europe, unloved and uneaten!  Until some smart guy realized that these 'pests' are the same critters that the Chinese salivate over each and every autumn.  Of course we had to check it out.  What was there to lose?

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Crabs from the Netherlands
We discovered a Hong Kong store selling Hairy Crabs from the Netherlands.  Just opened.  The crabs were much more reasonably priced than their chinese cousins.  And bond not with the usual heavy straw but rather with a light weight cotton netting.  So far so good.  But what about the all important taste test?  Well, we thought that these hairy crabs were the best we have ever had:  overflowing with  luscious roe and golden fat, even the crab meat tasted sweet and lovely though there was not much of it.  Wow! we thought, our mouths full and hands dirty. So definitely a yes vote for the European Hairy Crab and we're going back for more, yeah!

We had the crabs at long last, so we decided to make a night out of it.  A Hairy Crab night.  We had a good bunch of crabs, around two per person.  When buying the hairy crabs you should check to see that they are very alive, that 's the most important thing. Tap on the shells near the eyes and check to see that their eyes retract quickly.  They should be lively.  Keep them cool and put in refrigerator as soon as you get home.

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We got a bottle of premium aged Hua Diao Rice Wine, 花雕酒.  I think we bought an 8 year aged wine. This wine is quite delicious but strongly flavored and so it meant for sipping.  Try pouring it into chinese teacups for a nice presentation.  For non drinkers make a pot of Ginger Tea.  A word on why Hua Diao Rice Wine and Ginger Tea are always part of the Hairy Crab feast.  According to Chinese food nutrition philosophy the Hairy Crab is a very "cooling" food.  So in order to balance that "cooling" effect on the body one should consume "hot" foods to balance the effect.  Ginger and rice wine are "hot" foods.  If you don't balance such an intense 'cooling' effect you may become weak and thus easily become sick.

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This is dried perilla leaf which is used in the steaming water of the crabs.  It is very fragrant when steaming.  We got it in the little package they give to you when you buy hairy crabs from the crab specialty stores.  I think you can also get this at the wet markets in Hong Kong. 

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They also give you brown sugar with the Hairy Crab package.  I think that any minimally processed brown sugar will be fine.  The less processed your sugar is, the better the rich caramelesque flavor that it will provide.  Hong Kong has a great selection of sugars in the bigger grocery stores nowadays.  Spend a moment at the sugar aisle and look for the sugars that are as unrefined as possible.  Great for daily use too!

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We made the traditional Hairy Crab dipping sauce of ginger, sugar and Zhejiang black rice vinegar .  We also made a couple of other quick simple dishes to complement the hairy crabs: Chinese Cucumber Salad 拍黃瓜 and Drunken Shrimp 醉蝦.  And lastly, of course, we made a quick detour to get some chrysanthemums to decorate the table.  (Did you know that chrysanthemums are originally from China?)  

It was a lot of fun!  It was my little girl's first time ever to eat the Hairy Crab and she loved it.  It was just a little family party so to speak but there something special about it.  I think it was the ritual of it all, this Hairy Crab Feast which has been going on like this for generations.  There's so little of that kind of beautiful, traditional ritual left now in our modern fast paced lives!  But there is a very beautifully satisfying feeling that comes when we do put in a bit of time and effort and go through these time honored motions that connect us to our own history.

Steamed Hairy Crab Recipe 清蒸大閘蟹

Ingredients 
4 Hairy Crabs
2 dried perilla leaf (optional)

Sauce
4 tbsp Zhejiang black rice vinegar
2 tbsp ginger, minced
4 tbsp brown sugar, or to taste

Ginger Tea
4 slices ginger, about 5 inches long
1/4 cup brown sugar, or to taste
 2 1/2 cups water

Directions:
Store the crabs in your fridge until ready to cook.  Wash crabs under running water.  Do not take off the string that is wrapping the crab.  Prepare the steamer.   Place perilla leaf in the boiling water.  Put the crabs shell side down on your steaming plate.  (Legs up.)  Steam at high heat for 15 mins (small to medium crab) or 20 minutes (large crab).

Meanwhile put water, sliced ginger and sugar in small pot and bring to a boil.  Lower heat, cover and let simmer for 15 minutes or so until the tea is spicy and sweet.  Add more sugar to taste.  

For the sauce, stir the sugar in the vinegar until sugar is melted.  (You may want to crush the sugar a bit first if you are using larger granules of sugar.)  Add the minced ginger and stir.  Pour into small dipping saucers, one for each diner.

Remove crabs from steamer immediately and place on serving plate.  Let each diner peel and crack his own crab.  Dip each bit of hairy crab meat into the sauce and eat.

Eating Tips:  Discard only the gills you will see on each side of the crab after you lift off the top shell.  Everything else soft is edible.  You may need to supply your diners with seafood scissors and crab meat plucking utensils which you can usually buy where ever you are purchasing the crab.  Happy Hairy Crab Eating!

Hairy Crab Vending Machines?! - Find out more...

Other recipes from The Hong Kong Cookery to go with your Hairy Crab Party:

chinese cucumber salad recipeChinese Cucumber Salad 拍黃瓜

drunken shrimp Drunken Shrimp 醉蝦

thousand year egg and tofuThousand Year Egg and Tofu 皮蛋豆腐
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2 comments:

  1. I think I will try it! I've never cooked crab before, but this post is very inspiring. :)

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    Replies
    1. Hi Lolai - Do try it, it's easy to make and delicious to eat! ~ellen

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