It’s late Sunday night in Shanghai. Crab season.
The crabs seem to descend on the city from nowhere. They fill tiny vacant shops along the sidewalk.
Crab season lasts from September through til October. The best hairy crabs are imported from Yangcheng lake in Suzhou, but the sheer amount of “Yangcheng” crab in the city makes you wonder just how big this lake must be. I read an article recently about how many crabs are not from Yangcheng lake at all, and instead they’re reared on farms and fed every kind of toxin under the sun, just so they can earn a bigger price tag.
Tongchuan lu 铜川路 was glistening. Streets washed down with seawater. Men sat on kid-sized stools hacking bricks of ice along the side of the road; shellfish sparkled nakedly under fluorescent light. Abolone, tortoises, sea slugs, and creatures plain weird-looking. Men smoked on idle motorbikes looking bitterly into black puddles, men watched with emotionless eyes as more men shifted to-and-fro with crates, piling them up like jenga bricks on their backs… the macho world of sea-fare.
You can smell the ocean. And while we walked, my friend told me about a local chef who’d recently been in the news after he’d had his hand bitten off by a snake he was about to cook.
We’d been planning to eat crab for weeks, but each time it came round our plans would fall through. I suspected we were both subconsciously avoiding it – I mean hairy crab isn’t exactly the most enticing name for dinner. But we’d run out of excuses now and here we were finally at the 24-hour seafood market, just north of the center by Zhenri Rd metro station (line 11).
My friend spoke to a crabmonger(?!) in Chinese, while I inspected the tanks and looked eye-to-eye with my potential dinner…
Our fishmonger plunged his hand into the water and took out a huge, aggressive crab, which he flung hastily into a bucket.
The crab looked strange against the white, unnatural surface, and the more I looked, the more it resembled one of my biggest fears – spiders. Another crab flew into the bucket and landed on top of the other crab so it was super pissed-off now and they kicked madly at each other.
We decided we’d go for the smaller looking crab. And even the fishmonger was flinching as he tried to get the angry crabs back in the water.
We chose three palm-sized crabs. The man bound them easily in green rope and yanked tight so their legs were paralyzed in one tug. Then he slipped them one by one – each 10 yuan (around £1) – into a black opaque bag.
Next thing to look for was a restaurant. The fishmonger took us to this two-storey place down the street, which was loud and packed full of people. Upstairs, we followed our overly helpful fishmonger through passages, off which led into the private dining rooms. We sat in the large room at the back, where there were the sounds of kitchen chaos below and the din of Chinese voices swirling in a Double Happiness smoke.
Our crabs were taken from us the moment we sat down and the next time we’d see them, they’d be upside down on a plate ready for us to eat.
Chinese food is all about the raw, essential ingredients. So there was nothing extravagant about the way it came out of the kitchen. The crabs are simply steamed and put on a plate. No sauce, no seasoning, just pure straight-up hairy crab.
We drank coconut milk and looked around at our fellow diners. Redfaced men and women sat around lazy susans, smoking and drinking baiju, the infamous Chinese rice wine. Waiters kicked boxes across the floor for people to spit and throw discarded crab shells into… The men, as Chinese men do, had their tops pulled up over their bloated stomachs, and crab shells littered the floor from where people had missed the buckets.
20 mins later, our dinner arrived. Our crabs had morphed from dull green/brown, to a more appetizing coral colour. At least they didn’t look so much like giant spiders anymore. The waiter shoved the plate onto the table and hurried away.
The hardest part was finding the meat, and as I struggled with this crustacean rubix cube, I got pinched and scratched the whole time by its hairy legs. We had to “pop the shell like a car boot” according to some instructions I’d found online, but that wasn’t very successful and my hairy crab accomplice had resorted to bashing the crab with his hand. After all the hard work, I found there was only about two decent mouthfuls of meat inside.
After our dinner, we looked up and noticed the room had emptied without us realizing because we were so engrossed in eating. We left the restaurant and descended underground to catch the last train, leaving this marketplace that never sleeps. I’ll be back again for sure, but not for hairy crab.