Hairy crabs, mitten crabs or big sluice crabs – whatever you call them, the fuzzy-clawed crustaceans can drive the Chinese slightly mad with desire.
Take the seventeenth century playwright and erotic novelist Li Yu. In one of his whimsical essays on gastronomy, he wrote the following: “My heart lusts after them and my mouth enjoys their delectable taste. In my whole life there has not been a single day when I have forgotten them. I can’t even begin to describe or make clear why I love them, why I adore their sweet taste, and why I can never forget them… Dear crab, dear crab, you and I – can you and I be lifelong companions?”
Li’s dilemma was the same as that faced by hairy crab fans today: the season is only a couple of months long, stretching from late September to mid-November. So little time, so much appetite for crab.
Why such a short season? Well, during that time young adult crabs are preparing to migrate to the sea to mate which means they are full of the golden sperm and eggs said to render them so delicious.
The all-too-brief culinary high presents a business opportunity, as regular WiC readers will know. And being well aware that hairy crab madness can take hold of Chinese at any moment, Liu Zhinan, a fishmonger from the city of Hangzhou, has even purchased a vending machine to dispense crabs for the hours when he is off duty.
“Crab shops like ours generally close at night,” the China News Service quoted Liu as saying. “But what are people to do when their stomachs are empty and they want to boil up a bit of lake crab and have a bit to drink?”
Liu got the idea for his machine after reading about earlier prototypes on the internet. But he reckons his machine is much sleeker, decked out in glass and chrome. The ‘Crab ATM’, as it has been nicknamed, allows people to choose their purchase by punching in a row number .
When the crab finally drops into the delivery hatch below, it is still alive – albeit trussed up and groggy from the cold temperature. That’s key: Liu says he will offer three healthy crabs in compensation if a customer gets a dead one (important in a country with a strong preference for seafood to be bought alive).
Residents of Hangzhou seem taken with the machine, with many posting pictures using it online. People from the other parts of the country later bombarded them with questions. “How do you choose between male and female ones,” asked one. (It’s a pertinent question: female crabs are meant to be better at the beginning of the season and the males later on.)
Others asked if the price on the machine – Rmb25 ($4.08) per crab – could be correct, given that they are often much more expensive. “Convenient and cheap!” wrote one, “We need machines like this in Shanghai!” Prices for hairy crabs are higher than usual this year because of the long summer (it reduced water levels in the lakes in which they live, a situation limiting supply).
But aficionados of the red-shelled cuisine can take heart that prices might have been much higher if the government hadn’t banned officials from accepting crabs as gifts during the Mid-Autumn Festival. That move is part of the wider programme designed to fight graft.
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