Some of the most cherished meals are seasonal. There is something about eating a dish at the same time (and sometimes with the same folks) every year that makes it special. Perhaps it’s more delicious knowing that if you miss out this year, then you must wait a whole year for your next chance?
What if you are in a different country during that special season? 13 years ago, we visited Hong Kong in Autumn and I still think of an amazing feast we had. Steamed (or was it boiled?) crabs and served at the family table over disposable tablecloths. A sweet, vinegar based dipping sauce on offer and it’s pretty much just a free for all. There are various spoons, scissors and implements and everyone has a great time working for their edible prize.
In Western cuisine, crab is prized for it’s meat. The large grapple factor (big effort for minimal meat) deters many Westerners from eating crab. In Hong Kong, it’s not the meat that is prized, but the roe. Male crabs have more meat, but female crabs have the sort after roe.
Hairy crab or Dai Jahp Hai are available in September and October which is Autumn in Hong Kong. These creatures are bound with water grass and can be seen for sale everywhere in Autumn.
Dai Jahp Hai translates to Big Gate Crab and reminds us of a time where crabs were trapped, not farmed. Bait was set inside a box trap and placed in river shallows. Crabs would find themselves trapped after climbing over the walls of the trap. The walls were known as the Big Gates.
These crabs originally hail from a lake in Shanghai called Yeung Ching – a very cold lake which produces amazing crabs. Nowdays, this lake is considered too polluted for the discerning Hong Kong market and while they are still branded as Lake Yeung Ching crabs, in reality they are sourced from other locations.
What does it taste like? Rich, creamy and a full hit of savoury umami. Mixed with the sweet vinegar dipping sauce, this is a heavenly dish. It’s probably a good thing it’s only available for a short period. One day I hope to return to Hong Kong in Autumn for this feast. I can’t believe it’s been 13 years.
Here are some photos courtesy of my cousin Charing. They are from her crab feast in Autumn 2009. They really have crab eating down to a fine art.
The sweet crab eating setup (including disposable tablecloth) : “Wet towel, dish, vinega+ginger (mum’s special made!), little spoon/long stick, scissor”
A cooked crab. You can see the hairs on their legs that give these their English name.
The crab opened up. As I mentioned, you can eat the meat in the legs, but the roe is gold.
Pièce de résistance.