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Autumn's fat crabs inspire us

279 views. 2010-10-11 12:58 |

Lake crabs, river crabs, salt-water crabs? They are getting prime space at the seafood stalls right now. Pauline D. Loh shows you how to get the best out of the crustaceans.

Poets wax lyrical and artists get inspired by these unlikely creatures. Not exactly things of great beauty, crabs look a little like giant aquatic spiders, scuttling sideways as they try to avoid the jaws of hungry humans.

I am pretty sure it's no consolation that they have been immortalized in poetry, prose and art ever since the first roe-rich mitten crab was discovered and consumed.

It's not just the lake-grown mitten or hairy crabs that face this seasonal slaughter. All around China, crabs from river and sea are also preparing to mate in September and October, their bodies laden with eggs and milt. At least, they will mate if they can avoid being eaten first.

The harvest moon, chrysanthemums, wine and crabs have been the classic props for parties of scholars for generations.

There is actually a major industry south of the Yangtze River specializing in the cultivation of hairy crabs, boxy creatures with furry claws that can cost up to a few thousand dollars a feed.

There are many other lakes that produce hairy crabs, but the ones from Lake Yangcheng near Shanghai are deemed the best. There is even a branding campaign with little numbered tags that can trace the crab's origin right back to birth, location and farmer.

If you are not fussy about branding, crabs from local lakes are cheaper, but don't expect them to cost much less. Our voracious appetites are making crabs a scarce commodity. That is the reason why when you do buy some, make use of every little bit of the crab.

Hairy crabs are best enjoyed steamed, served with a tiny bowl of finely diced ginger in the best Zhejiang aged vinegar. This is the best way to savor the sweetness of the crab.

I have a little trick with the claws, which are usually discarded by my lazy family. I take a pair of sharp scissors and remove the dark meat. Then, with any left over crabmeat, I do an asparagus stir-fry that has a smooth egg-white custard base. I often garnish it with some crab roe. It's a very pretty dish and easy to boot.

For the salt-water crabs, normally blue swimmers, I will do a stir-fry with a simple hot chili paste or black bean and garlic. Often I will steam them first, then remove the meat and keep the shell. After a bit of scrubbing and trimming, the shells are stuffed with a mixture of crabmeat, mushrooms and sauted onions and then baked.

That way, the lazy gourmets in the family clean up the plates.

It may sound fiddly, but I find that on lazy weekend mornings, I can watch the TV or listen to a new CD as I shell the crabs. It's almost therapeutic.

My mother-in-law loves drunken crab, something that her own mother used to make. This is a dish from the Zhejiang-Jiangsu region where a glut often meant that inventive chefs had to think of a way to keep the crabs for a few weeks.

It's a lovely dish, despite it's rather scary connotations for those who are thinking: "Raw crabs!"

The crabs are marinated in a mixture of yellow and white Chinese wines flavored with scallions, star anise, ginger and garlic. What comes out after a few days are heady morsels that are silky smooth. You have to try some.

One plea, though. Please place the crabs in the deep freeze for an hour or so before you dunk them in the wine marinade. Otherwise you may hear some disturbing scrabbling sounds coming from the covered pot that may send you on a guilt trip.

The first time I made this, I just could not bring myself to taste the crabs, even though I knew I had liked them very much before. Their scrabbling haunted me.

Recipe | Drunken Crabs

Autumn's fat crabs inspire us


6 river crabs or 2 large blue swimmers

500 ml Chinese yellow wine (Shaoxing)

500 ml Chinese white wine (erguotou)

1 cup water

6-8 thick slices ginger

6-8 cloves garlic, bruised but skin on

2 bunches scallions, chopped into 5 cm lengths

2-3 pods star anise

1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns

2 tbsp salt

4 tbsp sugar


1. Scrub the crabs really well, taking care to clean between the shell and the legs. If you are using hairy crabs, make sure you wash them in as many changes of water until it is clean and clear.

2. Place crabs in the deep freeze while you prepare the marinade.

3. Put the cup of water, ginger garlic, scallions, star anise and peppercorns into a large pot. Add the salt and sugar. Simmer until salt and sugar are dissolved.

4. Remove the pot from the heat and add the yellow and white wine. Allow to cool.

5. Bring out the crabs and run them under water. If they do not revive, they have gone on to crustacean heaven and are ready to be placed in their wine bath.

6. Place the crabs in a deep bowl or large crock, which can be covered. Pour over the cooled wine marinade, including the ginger, garlic and scallions.

7. Place in the fridge for three to four days, they are ready by then. They can keep for about two weeks as long as they are fully submerged in the marinade.

Food notes:

Yellow wine is normally the Shaoxing, of which there are many grades, including jiafan or even nu'er hong. The white wine can be any grain liquor, like the sorghum-based erguotou that is so common in Beijing. If you don't have any available, substitute a sherry for the yellow wine and vodka for the white wine. It'll be a little stronger, but that's the idea.

Autumn's fat crabs inspire us

Recipe | Stuffed Crabs


4 large blue swimmers (sea crabs)

6-8 large button mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 large brown onion, thinly sliced

2 tbsp dice carrots

1 cooked medium potato, peeled and mashed

1 cup milk

Salt and pepper to taste

Olive oil or vegetable oil

1 cup breadcrumbs

Sprigs of thyme (optional)


1. Steam the crabs. Shell the meat and set aside.

2. Take the four shells and trim off any jagged edges. Scrub and drain.

3. Heat up the olive oil in a large frying pan and add the onion. Fry until transparent but not browned. Set aside.

4. Turn up the heat and fry the sliced mushrooms. When they are a little browned around the edges, add the onions and the crabmeat. Mix well.

5. Add the diced carrots and mashed potatoes and milk. Stir through the mixture until it's nicely blended. Season with salt and pepper.

6. You should get a thick mixture that will not slide off a spoon. Stuff the crab shells and top with breadcrumbs, patting it down to form a crust.

7. Bake in the oven at 200 C for about 10 minutes until topping is golden brown. Garnish with sprigs of thyme.

Food notes:

Any left-over stuffing is great as a sauce for noodles or pasta. Or use it as a sandwich filling. If you prefer, forget the crab shells and divide the crab mixture into individual portions, top with breadcrumbs and bake in the oven.

Recipe | Asparagus With Crabmeat


A large bunch of asparagus (400 g)

1 cup crab meat

1 tbsp crab roe

1 egg white

1 cup chicken or vegetable stock

1 tsp corn starch

Sesame oil

Salt and pepper to taste


1. Snap off the lower ends of the asparagus and wash the tips. Blanch in boiling water until tips turn color. This will take less than three minutes. Refresh in cold water, and plate the asparagus.

2. Gently beat the egg whites until all the albumen strands are separated. Do not whip it to a froth.

3. Heat up a little oil in a frying pan, add crab meat and cook until heated through. Add the roe and the chicken stock.

4. Mix the corn starch with a little water and add to the mixture. Stir until the sauce is turning transparent. Season with salt and pepper.

5. Quickly pour the egg white into the hot sauce and remove from heat immediately. The residual heat will poach the egg white to a silky softness.

6. Pour the hot sauce on the asparagus and serve at once.

Food notes:

This is a simple dish to do, really. The secret is in the timing. Get everything you need ready by the cooking station so you do not leave anything unattended even for a second. And trust the heat to do its job in cooking the egg white. As you bear the dish to the table, the heat is still doing the cooking so it will be perfect by the time dinner is served.

Post comment Comment (6 replies)

Reply summerjiang 2010-10-11 13:50
It must test delicious.
Reply linda@crab 2010-10-11 14:54
summerjiang: It must test delicious.
Reply touringchina 2010-10-12 12:19
linda@crab,you surely have a solid connection with crabs,and i can tell that you are an expert in the line of crab know crabs much better than themselves do.
Reply linda@crab 2010-10-12 13:00
touringchina: linda@crab,you surely have a solid connection with crabs,and i can tell that you are an expert in the line of crab know crabs much
it's just one copy
but i really wish i could cook and taste like one expert.hehe! how delicious it is!
Reply Sally_Fan 2010-10-12 14:10
It's really time to eat the fat crabs in autumn.
Reply linda@crab 2010-10-12 14:13
Sally_Fan: It's really time to eat the fat crabs in autumn.

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