Walk through the streets of Shanghai this month – the height of hairy-crab season – and you will see what a big business hairy crab has become.
It may not sound especially appetising – hairy crab is named after the hair-like growth on the animal’s claws and lower shell – but as a dish it is now revered in Chinese cuisine similarly to abalone and shark’s fin.
Once an occasional delicacy among the Shanghainese, the crab has since scuttled onto the finest dining tables across the country.
Like most luxury goods, hairy crab has also been viewed as an economic barometer.
So last year, when China’s stock market crashed, prices dropped by over 80%.
But with the economy now on the mend, happier days have returned for crab sellers.
“I made half a million yuan in sales last year and I already exceeded that figure in Golden Week alone,” Xu Bing, a crab salesmen in Beijing, told the CBN Weekly. Xu expects sales to double next year.
Although these freshwater crustaceans are available all year round, the Chinese believe that crabs taste best in the latter part of the year.
Consumers pay anywhere between Rmb100 and Rmb400 per crab ($15-$60), depending on the size and quality. It is a substantial mark-up on the Rmb40-80 paid to the farmers for their product.
Still, this yields only a thimbleful of meat (only 30% of the crab is edible). And that is after a laborious (and potentially messy) extraction process.
The crabs are prized less for their meat and more for their creamy roe. The priciest catch comes from Yangcheng Lake (in southeastern Jiangsu province, between Shanghai and Suzhou) which is said to boast the perfect water quality and weather conditions.
Locals swear that crab meat from Yancheng Lake is sweeter.
“The bottom of the lake is sand, instead of mud,” Tian Qiuming, master chef at Great Wall in Beijing, explains.
But, like Louis Vuitton and Rolex, Yangcheng also struggles to protect its brand from the counterfeiters, who have been passing off crabs of much less distinguished provenance. Some bleach their shells white to make them look like the Yangcheng real thing.
Others simply dump their own crabs into the Yangcheng Lake.
According to Zhang Mingliang, a local farmer, “we call it giving the crabs a bath”.
Experts estimate that during the August-to-December season, the lake produces over 1,000 tonnes of the delicacy. But a further 10,000 tonnes of fake crabs are also sold into the market.
To protect their franchise, suppliers of genuine Yangcheng crab went high-tech in 2003, using lasers to stamp serial numbers on shells. Counterfeiters were soon at work with laser stamps of their own.
Since then, the local trade association has been putting an anti-counterfeit ring on the claws of genuine Yangcheng product.
This includes a phone number for diners to call to confirm the legitimacy of their meal.
But don’t expect crab prices to come down any time soon, say experts.
Recently, the Suzhou government has reduced the areas reserved for crab farming by a third (in an attempt to preserve water quality).
That means new constraints on supply at a time when a fast rebounding economy means demand is still growing.
That explains why the industry’s farmers (genuine Yangcheng producers, as well as the not so genuine ones) are confident that prices will continue to rise.
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