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Smitten for mitten crab
Smitten for mitten crab
Xin Li

JIANGNAN – It's that time of a year again for Chinese crab lovers. Connoisseurs of mitten crabs, this expensive seasonal delicacy, know that the crustacean is concentrated in Jiangnan, in the southern part of the Yangtze Delta,

The autumn harvesting is carried out mostly very early in the morning before sunrise. Using the crab's phototropism, the boats are lit with sparkling lights. Soon enough the crabs will all be obediently crawling into the cages. Trapped crabs will be fed with small snails, tiny fish and corn kernels for a few more days to fatten them up for sale.

In recent years, demand his risen to experience the freshness of the just-caught crab (and boast about it to friends), leading to more and more annual crab feasts right near the water. Whether it's at the lakeside farms or on the waters of Tai Lake or Yangcheng Lake, the most famous sources for this hairy Chinese delicacy, suddenly you hear people with different accents from every corner of China - Shanghainese, Cantonese, Hongkongese and Pekinese.

Since ancient times the Jiangnan region has always been reputed for both its literati and cuisine. Poets and painters alike have been inspired by the joy of eating, turning out works such as Fishing Gear of Tang poet Lu Guimeng and the Fifteen Fishing Gear Chants of his friend, Pi Rixiu, who sang along with him in matching rhyme.

Tang Bohu, one of the most notable painters and calligraphers in Chinese art history was inspired by a Drunk Crab which, in turn, prompted the sensational gourmet dish that remains renowned to this day.

The self-proclaimed connoisseurs are very particular about their hairy crabs, and the origin of the mitten crab is of utmost importance, along with the technique for eating and presentation.

Still, city people's ideas are often far too complicated and pretentious. For farmers, live crabs are just scrubbed and tied up with coarse twine before being thrown into a pot of boiling water. Preparing the cooking water for crabs should include slices of ginger or some perilla leaves.

Sperm and roe

Nothing beats the original flavor of crab roe, particularly plump in the fall, the fresh water crab’s jade-like grease and meat. If one prefers, a bit of vinegar mixed with finely chopped ginger and spring onion also hits the spot. The best fresh water crabs have clean white and bulging abdomens and half-translucent claws with a subtle fragrance when cooked.

Li Yu, the 17th century playwright famous for his erotic classic The Carnal Prayer Mat, was so obsessed by mitten crabs that he would save up what he called his survival money just to see a crab on his table every day.

At the beginning of China’s recent opening-up to the world, serious Chinese chefs looking to revive crab specialties made their way to the finest hotels in Hong Kong. The flamboyant annual crab feast in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel was a must. The island’s many migrants came from Jiangsu, Zhejiang and Shanghai and had preserved the old recipes.

One particular Hong Kong recipe is crab combined with poached pears in osmanthus-added sugar water. Other specialties include crab claw with the shell already removed then rapidly cooked in chicken broth. The extremely light chicken broth does not distract from the flavor of crab meat while the cooking time has to be controlled down to the second.

But more and more, the Chinese chefs from Jiangnan area are also invited to Hong Kong to teach innovative new crab dishes.

The crab dumpling that is made of pure crab meat filling, crab meat and asparagus, and of course the drunk crabs in which a live whole crab is marinated with spirits and multiple seasoning for hours or days. One can never forget the aroma that lingers on the tongue after tasting this extreme delicacy.

Among the many crab dishes Tu-Huang-You, meaning pure yellow grease, is perhaps the most extreme example of culinary luxury. It comes at the end of a Suzhou and Shanghai style banquet. The dish is made with the sperm of the male crab and the roe of the female crab sealed in lard. Take a spoonful of the glowing golden gloss and add it to rice embellished with yellow chrysanthemum. When the rich flavor touches one’s tongue, no description can do it justice.

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