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by Jacqueline M. Newman

Fish and Seafood

Winter Volume: 2008 Issue: 15(4) page(s): 10, 11, and 14

Crabs are not new to China, though the first person there or anywhere that ate one of these crustaceans surely was brave. In his Explanation of Terms Liu Xi of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) wrote about eating crabs at a meal. We assume he meant the hard-shelled creatures that were popular more than two thousand years ago. We suspect eating them is older than that and bet that rocks were the weapons of choice when cracking their shells.

Did you know that after the Han Dynasty, pickled crabs and crabs prepared with honey were sent to the Emperor as tribute foods? We did not until recently. Nowadays, ordinary folk prefer theirs plain or with sour or piquant sauces and not sweet ones. In ancient dynasties, were families that ate crabs what we might call gourmets, or were they ordinary folk?

In the Sung Dynasty (960 - 1279 CE), people liked crabs meaty, sweet, and moist. Some only used salt after steaming theirs. In China, a popular saying is 'Crab specialities are served at dinner when Autumn winds rise.' Never did find who said that or when, but several books include that phrase and many say eating crabs is seasonal and that breed and region determine their quality. Do you?

There are many kinds of crab the world over with those from the sea less tender than those that swim in fresh water. In the United States, several types of crabs including blue crabs along the Atlantic coast found all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. On the west coast, there are king crabs and Dungeness crabs. All of these are sea crabs.

In China, da zha or 'hairy crabs' are the ones deemed best. They are not from salt water, but from Lake Yangcheng. Second best are these same hairy crabs from Lake Taihu. Both are available for only a short time each year, and both are sought after. Some books advise picking round ones the first month they are in season and pointy ones the following month. Generally, hairy crabs have green backs, white bellies, and hair-laden golden claws. Recently, these have been flown to this and many other countries, so they are better known than ever before.

Their are many more common crabs in China and throughout Asia. Some are pang xie or green crabs, and some are suo zi xie crabs. But the very best ones, as already indicated, the Chinese believe to be da zha or the hairy crabs of Yangcheng Lake, Changshu City, Jiangsu. To enjoy the very best hairy crabs, eat them in fall and early winter when they are fat and meaty. And to be an afficionado, do leave the hairy part on the claws unwashed.

Eating any crab means enjoying a crustacean whose shell turns bright red when cooked. Uncooked crabs should not be consumed. Cooking any crab means killing it within ten to fifteen minutes of putting it in a wok or in a pot. Some folks scrub crabs with a brush, pull off the back and remove the gills and other soft matter, then break the body in half. The Chinese do otherwise; they boil the crab, shell side down, and if they want to only use the meat, they remove it at this point. Then they rinse the meat, but only if it is dirty or sandy, then shell it and use the flesh in a recipe.

Crabs molt, that is they shed their hard shells periodically; and when they do, they back out of the old shell. At this point, the crab is called a soft-shelled crab. They develop a hard shell in hours or a day or two after molting, and adult crabs usually molt once a year, in late summer. Younger ones do so more often, as needed, as they grow. Without its shell, the Chinese think crabs have minimal or no flavor and minimal meat. They refer to them as 'light weight with light taste;' and most Chinese do not eat soft-shelled crabs.

Hairy crab season is, according to the western or Gregorian calendar, in October, November, and December. Female crabs mature first; males about ten to fourteen days later. To tell them apart, the shape and the flap on the underside differentiates females from males. Also, males have more roe (the eggs). They are best the second and third month of crab season.

To select crabs, be sure they feel heavy, and that the abdomen feels firm when pressed. Touch the eyes to see if the crab is alive. If it is, they will retract quickly. One last item, be sure to purchase crabs from vendors you know and trust.

Hairy crabs most often are boiled whole while other crabs can be, or they can be chopped into pieces before cooking. Do chop crabs when alive, abdomen facing up. Cut into the center of each crab but do bot cut all the way through. Then turn the crab over, abdomen side down, and trim away the eyes and remove the gills. Next, cut the pincers off and crack them; then cut the legs into equal-size pieces. Be sure to remove any broken shell pieces. After doing all these things, crabs can be boiled, stir-fried, or cooked in any other way.

When cooking crabs whole, simply put them in boiling water, usually with perilla leaves, shell side down. They are ready to eat in under twenty minutes. If you have hairy crabs, take out the roe before cooking and set it aside. That can be done for other types of crab, too. After crabs are cooked, eat them immediately or refrigerate them immediately. It is best to remove the shells before refrigerating them. Keep in mind that crab meat has a short shelf life, a day or two at best. Do not keep whole cooked crabs, they are best right after cooking them.

According to the Chinese medicinal hot-cold dichotomy, crabs are considered cold. They benefit from minced fresh ginger and vinegar for health and for added flavor. Using a good Shaoxing rice wine instead of vinegar is a terrific idea; drink some, too. After eating crabs, Chinese like to have a cup or two of hot ginger tea because they believe it is good for the system.

One book specializing in prawns, crabs, and lobsters has pictures of eleven different popular kinds of crabs. They are from different countries and different waters. Each, they say, tastes differently. When traveling, therefore, get crab-educated by trying the different kinds available.

We had fresh hairy crabs for the first time this past year in Shaoxing, at the tail of the season. Amazed at how hard the shells were, and how difficult it was to eat them, we did enjoy their special taste, but not as much as we anticipated we would. Friends said that was because it was past prime hairy crab time. Need to go earlier in the season or buy some next year flown in to check that out.

We do recall preparing local blue crabs years ago. When we chopped them apart and were not looking, a separated pincer jumped and bit the hand that did the chopping. It ached for days and was a grim reminder that separated joints are still very much alive. Therefore, do be careful when chopping your crabs or you will be crabby for days.
Steamed Hairy Crabs
4 hairy crabs, leave tied as purchased
2 dried perilla leaves, soaked in warm water for ten minutes (optional)
1 Tablespoon coarsely chopped ginger
1/4 cup shaoxing rice vinegar
1. With abdomen facing up, put crabs then the soaked perilla leaves on top and steam over boiling water, for fifteen minutes if small or medium size, twenty minutes if large.
2. Remove crabs from steamer rack or basket, cut away the strings that tied the crab.
2. Mix ginger with Shaoxing vinegar and put into a small dish. Set this aside for dipping the crab meat.
3. Cut the crabs into several pieces with a strong scissor, and serve them or have scissors for those eating them to do that task. Set on the table with the dipping sauce.
Crabs with Black Bean Sauce
6 crabs
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 sweet red pepper, seeded and cut into one-inch cubes
1/2 sweet green pepper, seeded and cut into one-inch cubes
1/2 hot pepper, seeded and minced
2 scallions, cut into one-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, rinsed and lightly mashed
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
1/2 cup chicken stock
1 Tablespoon thin soy sauce
1. Chop the crabs into six to eight pieces each. Toss them with the cornstarch, and shake off any excess.
2. Heat wok or deep pan, add oil, and deep fry the pieces of crab for three minutes, remove, and drain. Remove and discard all but one tablespoon of the oil from the wok or pan.
3. Reheat pan and remaining tablespoon of oil and fry all the peppers, scallions, and the fermented beans for two minutes, then add the oyster sauce, chicken stock, and soy sauce, and stir-fry for one minute before adding the drained crabs. Stir-fry this mixture for two or three minutes or until the sauce is reduced to about two tablespoons. Put the crab mixture into a bowl, and serve.
Crab in Bamboo Steamer Basket
1 six- to eight-inch bamboo steamer basket per person
1/2 lotus leaf (per person)
1/2 cup glutinous rice (per person), soaked overnight, then steamed for forty minutes
1 crab (and one steamer basket per person)
1 clove fried garlic, peeled and minced (per person)
1 teaspoon fried shallot (per person)
1. Line a bamboo steamer basket with lotus leaf. The leaf will need to be cut into three overlapping pieces.
2. Leave large crab shell and the pincer legs with their shells on the crab. Remove all other shells and chop the other crab part into four pieces, and set it aside.
3. Mix rice with garlic and shallot pieces, then put the rice mixture on the bamboo leaf. Put the crab pieces on next, the shell and pincer pieces on top of them. Steam this for twelve minutes over rapidly boiling water. Remove and serve.
Crabs, Sichuan Style
2 crabs
1/2 cup vegetable oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 Tablespoons fermented black beans, minced
2 chili peppers, seeds discarded, and minced
1 Tablespoon Chinese rice wine
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 scallions, cut in one-inch pieces
1. Remove crab claws and swimmerettes, and chop the large body piece in two pieces. Set these aside. Be sure to discard any green and hairy innards.
2. Heat oil, and stir-fry all the crab parts for three or four minutes. Then remove from the oil and drain them well. Set them aside.
3. Discard all but one tablespoon of the oil, and reheat it in the wok. Then add the garlic, black beans, and the chili pepper pieces, stir-frying these for half minute.
4. Return the crab to the wok, add the rice wine and the salt and sugar, and stir-fry these stirring them just two or three times before adding the scallion pieces. Toss all together for one minute, and put into a bowl. Then, serve.
Crab and Shrimp Balls
1/2 pound shrimp, peeled and the veins removed and discarded, and minced
1/2 pound crabmeat, minced
4 water chestnuts, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg white
1 Tablespoon cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 cup vegetable oil
1. Mix shrimp and crab meat, then mix in the water chestnuts, salt, egg white, cornstarch, ground white pepper, and the sesame oil.
2. Make the above mixture into one-inch balls, and set them aside covered in the refrigerator for two or three hours.
3. Heat oil in a deep pot, and deep-fry the balls for about three minutes or until golden brown. Serve immediately.

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