Food & Wine

Catch a mitten crab season - Bring in the cash

Updated: 07 Nov 2008
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Da zha xie, the hairy-claw crabs from Yangcheng Lake is the most expensive crabs in China 


The Chinese are very particular about eating the right food in the right season. Late autumn is the season for crabs. If you travel by taxi, you have probably heard an ad on the radio promoting da zha xie - the Chinese mitten crab (Eriocheir Sinensis). 

The most expensive crabs in the country come from Yangcheng Lake, which is close to Shanghai and is credited with being the cradle of China's crab culture. 

According to legend, Da Yu, a tribal leader known for controlling floods, once sent a man named Ba Jie to Yangcheng Lake to do the job. 

At night, workers sitting around a bonfire were horrified to see a black army of crustaceans waving their pincers, charging nearer. The crabs put out the fire with their white foam and inflicted gaping wounds on the humans who tried to stop them. 

It was Ba Jie who thought of digging deep trenches around the bonfire and pouring boiling water into them when the crab army invaded again. To his surprise, the crabs turned crimson and a pleasant smell filled the air. 

Ba Jie is said to be the first man to taste crab and the Chinese honor him by adding the character chong (worm) beneath his name jie, to make the word xie (crab). 

One of the best ways to sample China's culinary culture is to eat crabs. Instead of tearing up the crab and chewing on the meat, Chinese people have invented ways to enjoy the delicacy in a refined manner. 

The traditional "Crab Eight" instruments are so called for the eight silver tools for handling crab meat, including chopsticks, toothpicks and a small hammer. Without getting one's hands greasy or smashing the shell with an embarrassing sound, you can hook out the most tenacious bits of meat from the crab's legs, dip them in a mixture of vinegar and minced ginger, and let your senses savor its rich flavor. 

Delicious as they are, crabs are not very well regarded creatures in China. In almost every folk tale or literary work, the crustacean is compared to thugs or wicked politicians who thrive on the pain of the weak but end up wretched. Hence eating crab brings a special joy to the Chinese. 

Lu Xun (1881-1936), one of the greatest writers in modern Chinese history, wrote a famous story about the crab, or rather about a monk named Fa Hai who hid in a crab. 

According to legend, Lady White Snake once met a young scholar named Xu Xian and they got married. But Fa Hai tried to separate the couple and even jailed Lady White Snake at the Leifeng Tower on the bank of the West Lake in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. 

For some unknown reason, the Jade Emperor, supreme deity in Taoism, decided to catch Fa Hai and the monk took refuge inside a crab's stomach. Even today, if you crack open a crab's shell without smashing up the insides, you can see a tiny figure with a bald head and long beard sitting in meditation. 

Lu Xun wrote the story in 1924 when the legendary tower tumbled down. Even though no one found anything about Lady White Snake in the ruins, it was an occasion for celebration. 

In feudal China, it was difficult for one to marry his or her true love, and the story of Lady White Snake was one of many that ancient Chinese made up to express their longing for romantic love. 

However, while the Chinese mitten crab is hard to find in the country, it is seen as an invasive species in Europe and America and has been bulldozed at their shores when brought in by tourists and merchants. What a waste! 

Source:China Daily 


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