A HAIRY, brown creature has been making its presence felt in Chinese restaurants islandwide.
Hairy crabs, named for the golden-brown hairy bristles found on their pincers and legs, are in peak season from September to December.
Unlike the more familiar Sri Lankan crabs, these freshwater crustaceans are small in size and weigh 200g to 300g.
They are prized for their rich, custard-like roe and their meat is also sweeter than that of other crabs.
Both male and female crabs produce roe but the female crabs mature earlier, in September, which is when they are best eaten. The male ones mature between October and November.
Immensely popular in China, hairy crabs are also considered a delicacy in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.
Singaporeans are warming up to the crab as well. Imports of hairy crabs have grown over the years from 11.79 tonnes in 2003 to 21.98 tonnes last year.
They are available, for example, at the 15 restaurants under the Tung Lok group and cost $45 for a 200g to 250g crab.
At Capital Restaurant in Bukit Pasoh Road, they are going for $110 per kg. And at Cantonese restaurant Hai Tien Lo in the Pan Pacific Singapore, they cost $68 for a 250g to 300g crab.
For those who don't want to shell a whole crab, restaurants also serve the meat and roe as toppings in noodle and vegetable dishes, and in xiao long bao or meat dumplings.
The best hairy specimens are said to come from Yangcheng Lake in China's Jiangsu province where the waters are clean and contain the right nutrients for the crab to feed on.
Because of the premium placed on these crabs, many farmers have tried to pass off others reared in other lakes as the real deal.
To keep the counterfeit crabs in check, crustaceans from Jiangsu province come tagged with serial numbers, and some even have them etched in laser on the shell.
A good one should have a hard shell and should feel heavy. The belly should be white and it should be active.
The best way to have a hairy crab is to steam it for about 15 minutes till it turns orange-red. Eat it with a vinegar-ginger dip to counterbalance its cooling property or drink ginger tea or a yellow rice wine such as shaoxing wine.
Claws and effect
EATING hairy crabs elegantly is a skill.
Mr Zhang Zhengnong , assistant director of communications of the Ocean and Fisheries Bureau in Jiangsu province, demonstrates how to do it in eight simple steps.
All you need are a pair of scissors, a spoon and a pair of chopsticks.
1. Lift flap on the underside of the crab. For female crabs, the flap is oval and for males, triangular. Remove the heart, which is white. Discard it as it is too 'cooling', according to traditional Chinese medicine.
2. Pry open the top shell and spoon out the bright orange roe inside.
3. Remove gills as they cannot be eaten.
4. Hold on to the legs and break the body in half to reveal more roe. Eat the exposed roe and flesh. To get at the meat inside the shell, hold on to a leg and break off the corresponding segment of the body.
5. Snip crab legs off the body with a pair of scissors. Make a cut again between the two segments of a claw and remove the claw tip from the narrower segment.
6. Push one end of the narrower segment of the claw into the other to extricate the flesh in the latter. For the remaining segment, use a chopstick to get the flesh out.
7. Remove pincer from crab and snip away its two smaller segments.
8. Cut along the sides of the biggest segment of the pincer to remove half of the shell, revealing the meat in the front claw.