It’s autumn, and that means peak season for a quintessentially Chinese delicacy: the hairy crab.
They may not sound like the tastiest dish to a Western ear, but hairy crabs are hugely popular. Local gourmets consider the autumn harvest – the best freshwater crabs are airfreighted in from Yangcheng Lake in Suzhou – as a high point in the culinary calendar.
The crabs are famous for their cholesterol-rich roes, and should spend a minimum of six months in Yangcheng Lake to qualify as the real thing. Other producers try to get around this by raising crabs elsewhere and dunking them for shorter periods at Yangcheng. In fact, few crabs are now born and raised entirely in the lake.
They are also regarded as one of the better economic barometers. During the financial crisis, prices dropped as much as 80% but wholesale prices are currently at record levels, up 30% on last year to a punchy Rmb700 per kilo (roughly $105) or more.
That sounds like a robust economic outlook, although Bloomberg says that it translates to a price tag of about Rmb300 per restaurant sitting.
As a result, crab-lovers have been scouring the internet for deals, including an online store on Taobao, the country’s largest shopping website, which launched a group purchase of coupons for Yangcheng Lake crab packages between August 26 to 28.
The crabs were sold at a much cheaper price online than in supermarkets, with a four-pair package, normally priced at Rmb968, sold for just Rmb299 online. Within three minutes of the offer’s launch, sales volume had reached Rmb1 million, according to zjol.com.cn, and total sales were nearly Rmb14 million by the end of the promotion.
Taobao’s sale got a lot of publicity but it also got some consumers worried that demand for the crabs this year could be stratospheric. A solution was at hand. In early September, hairy crab vendors offered shoppers the chance to buy vouchers, i.e. pre-pay before the crabs were even ready to harvest. These gift coupons, or ‘preorder tickets for crabs’, are already in wide circulation, with the salesmen promising to deliver when crabs reach season (i.e. now).
This being China, counterfeit crabs are also a problem and the People’s Daily has been reporting on complaints that vendors have been passing off normal crabs for their hairier brethren.
Experts agree that some of the crabs being delivered are not of the hairy variety.
Yang Weilong, director of the Suzhou Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab Association, knows it’s a problem, with the market in counterfeit crabs 10 times that of real ones.
This year, Suzhou producers have distributed 15 million plastic “crab authentication” tags complete with serial codes and a toll-free number to help customers check if they have the real thing.
But the counterfeiters are resilient.
“We call it in the ‘paper crab’ business. You sell the tickets and we supply you with the crabs,” said Wu Wenliang, who heads a company that farms regular crabs. “Each crab costs Rmb15, and the laser rings cost Rmb2 each to prove the crabs’ ‘authenticity’ as hairy.”
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