Tightly bound hairy crabs.
A bunch of hairy crabs tightly bound and feistily blowing bubbles. (Photo Credit: Yann Cognieux)

With the autumnal weather settling into Hong Kong from late October to early December, foodies are clamouring to get their hands on some hairy crabs. I don’t really care for the sweet flesh but am absolutely crazy about the creamy, fatty, gooey, and high cholesterol roe. Some describe the taste of the roe as a mix of duck egg yolk and foie gras.

It’s a long wait of 10 to 11 months before you can enjoy the prime hairy crab harvest, but it’s totally worth it. The first batch to be in season are the male hairy crabs, which have a more solid roe. The females ripen later and have a more runny roe. To tell the sex of the crabs, just flip them over and look at the bottom flap of their shells. For female crabs, the flap is oval, and for males, triangular.

Cooking hairy crabs is quite easy. Just give the crabs a good scrubbing with a toothbrush and then steam them. According to traditional Chinese medicine, hairy crabs are very ‘cold’ food that can be harmful to your body and may even cause stomach aches. To balance it out, you can layer perilla leaves and ginger slices (the ‘warm’ foods) at the bottom of a steamer, and then place the live hairy crabs on top. Make sure they are placed legs up so they won’t escape that easily and the yummy roe won’t dribble out. Let the hairy crabs cool down a bit so the flesh will come off more easily.

Tips for Eating Hairy Crabs:

I think hairy crabs are best enjoyed at home as it can get messy and it can take hours to devour every bits of roe/flesh of a whole crab. 

  • To take the ‘warming’ remedy another step further, you can prepare a dipping sauce with grated ginger, brown sugar, and dark vinegar (e.g. Zhenjiang vinegar).
  • Then you should prepare your table for splashes and leftovers. Lay down some newspaper to absorb the juices and to make clean up easier.
  • The shell of hairy crabs is very soft so you don’t need crab mallets or claw crackers. Just a pair of scissors and a small teaspoon should suffice.
  • Now that a slightly cooled hairy crab is staring at you on the table. It’s time to dig in! 
    1. First separate the crab by pulling off the flap and lifting the shell. 
    2. Remove the gills (those finger-like parts on either side under the shell) and the heart (a tiny white part in the middle of the body) as they are inedible.
    3. The gorgeous orange parts under the shell and in the middle of the body are the roe. Scoop the roe out with the teaspoon and feast on!
    4. Hold on to the legs and break the crab body in half to reveal more roe. Eat the exposed roe and flesh as you go. To get to the meat inside the shell, hold on to a leg and break off the corresponding segment of the body.
    5. Next up are the crab legs. Snip the legs off with the 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. 
    7. Remove pincer from the 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.
  • So here are some extra tips on eating hairy crabs:
    1. Make sure the hairy crabs are still alive at the point you steam them, as dead crabs will build up dangerous bacteria and toxins in their bodies. Though the hairy crabs are tightly bound, you can spot the live ones by their moving legs and bubble blowing skills.
    2. Hairy crabs do not go well with beer, dark tea, or persimmons. Eating them together may make you vomit and/or give you a stomach ache.
    3. Flesh first, or roe first? Some suggest to eat the flesh before the roe, so the rich flavour of the roe won’t overpower the delicate, sweet flavour of the flesh. 
    4. Finish the hairy crab feast with a cup of hot ginger tea as a ‘warming’ remedy to rid the ‘cold’ of the hairy crabs.

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About Anna de Waard-Leung

Anna loves her heels, wine, and food - in that exact order. Her latest food addictions include Shiraz Mourvèdre, chicken tikka masala, sushi, and ossenworst (a raw beef sausage originating in Amsterdam).

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