November 15, 2013

Autumn: mitten crab, chestnuts and the change in seasons

秋風詞 - 李白 
秋風清 秋月明 
落葉聚還散 寒鴉棲複驚 
相親相見知何日 此時此夜難為情 
入我相思門 知我相思苦 
長相思兮長相憶 短相思兮無窮極
 早知如此絆人心 何如當初莫相識
Autumn Breeze by Li Bai (click for English translation)

Cooked crabs

Chinese mitten crab (大閘蟹) is a traditional autumn delicacy, especially in Shanghainese cuisine and throughout Eastern China. The most famous crabs originally came from Yangcheng Lake, but today these crabs are raised in freshwater farms throughout China. They're also considered an invasive pest in North America and Europe, where they've been carried by ballast on ships. (Since they're not eaten in those parts of the world, one senses a great business opportunity to export these "pests" back to Asia, where they are sold as expensive delicacies. 

The best part of the crab is the roe, located in the central cavity of the body. It's yellow, rich and full of umami flavor. Delicious! There's not a lot of meat in the crab, so if you're at a particularly decadent meal, you'll see diners discard the claws and legs and only eat the roe. 

The male crabs are more valuable than female crabs due to the quality of the roe, and larger crabs can go for up to US$20, or perhaps more, each. 

The mitten crabs are traditionally eaten with Zhengjiang black vinegar and finely shredded young ginger, together with Shaoxing rice wine. Crabs are considered to be an extremely yin "cooling" food in Chinese traditional medicine, and thus must be served with yang "warming" ingredients (i.e. the ginger and rice wine). 

My favorite is whole crab, which the diner can pick apart at the table (be warned: it's very, very messy), but for modern palates and for fussier/lazier diners, many restaurants offer dishes which incorporate the crab roe and meat (already removed from their shell). The best-known of these are Shanghai xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) with crab roe -- super tasty!

Anyway, to round off a meal of mitten crabs, don't forget to drink some hot ginger tea to balance out your yin (cool) and yang (hot). 

I love how Chinese cuisine is still strongly rooted in seasonal dishes - pea shoots are only available certain times of the year, as are lychees, mitten crab, sweet potatoes, roast chestnut and many other yummy foods.

Fall brings cooler, crisper weather and the opportunity to sit down with family to enjoy a rare once-a-year treat together.

On the street below our apartment, a middle-aged couple have set up their rickety wooden cart. It has a giant wok filled with charcoal, powered by a gas burner underneath - traditional but a complete fire hazard! Usually they appear in late October and stay until March or so. In their charcoal wok, they roast hen and quail eggs, sweet potatoes and sweet chestnuts from Shandong province. They'll be there selling their wares until spring arrives. When the weather's cold, there's nothing better than a piping hot bag of roast chestnuts and purple sweet potato. It's the smell and taste of my childhood.

Ginger tea helps increase your yang (warmth)