For many years I have heard my mother and other family members talk about hairy crabs: a seasonal delicacy that is only available in Hong Kong and other parts of China. From what I understood, the crabs were much smaller than what I was accustomed to, were eaten not for their meat but their roe, and most importantly were expensive.
Coincidentally, for the first time in my life I was going to be in Hong Kong during hairy crab season 😁.
I have to admit, when I was finally served my first hairy crab I was kind of underwhelmed by its appearance. It’s so called a “hairy crab” because there’s literally hair growing on their claws, like furry little mittens. But they are also small. The crab was the size of my palm, so I knew there wasn’t going to be much meat there. I had to remind myself “it’s all about the roe, it’s all about the roe.”
What’s special about eating hairy crabs (unlike most other dishes in Chinese cuisine) is that it’s prepared very simply. The crabs are steamed, then served to you with a side of vinegar for dipping. You are meant to taste the crab in its purist form, and that I really appreciate.
Another interesting aspect is how meticulous the approach to eating the crab is. You can’t just willy nilly tear the crab apart. Oh no no. I was instructed to flip it over and pull apart the shell from the crabs stomach, to slowly reveal the prized possession: the roe!
My recollection of that first bite was how thick this particular roe was in comparison to other crabs I’ve eaten before. Dark orange/red in color, it had a somewhat sweet (yet salty) taste to it and manages to coat your mouth with its smooth texture. Moving onto the legs afterwards, I was surprised to be given a specific tool to dig out the meat (sort of like a sharpened chop stick) as the legs are too narrow for your fingers to break apart. Again, not much meat there but hey.
Hairy crabs was not something I particularly craved after the first two occasions. There is just better tasting and cheaper food that requires less effort and offers greater reward. Or perhaps I don’t have a refined enough palate. Either way, what I really did love about it all was the ceremony, how once a year it brings people together to meticulously eat a small furry little crustacean.