As a popular Chinese saying goes: “The autumn winds start to blow, the crabs scuttle to and fro; when the chrysanthemums bloom, you’ll smell the crab’s perfume.” It’s hairy crab season once more, and there’s no better time to be a food lover.
Viewed as a great delicacy in China, the best hairy crabs, which are named for the furry appearance of their claws, hail from the rivers and lakes of the Yangtze River Delta, an area around Shanghai.
A number of customs have sprung up around the consumption of these creatures, including the use of a traditional set of implements known as the xie bajian, or the “crab eight-piece,” allowing its wielder to extract all the crab meat and guts while leaving the shell intact.
Custom also dictates which foods to eat with the crabs. Hairy crabs are classified as a “cold” food in China, not because of the temperature at which they are served, but for how they affect the body. According to traditional Chinese beliefs, “cold” foods should be paired with “hot” foods like ginger and vinegar — or better yet, a warm bottle of huangjiu, a Chinese rice wine. It is strictly forbidden to pair hairy crabs with persimmons, however. As persimmons are a fellow “cold” food, eating the two together violates the principle of xiangke, or mutual conflict. Rumors abound of those who lost their lives this way. The truth is much less extreme, although the pairing does tend to cause gastrointestinal discomfort.
An artisan shows a traditional set of implements known as the ‘crab eight-piece’ in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Sept. 15, 2007. Xu Zhiqiang/VCG
There are even guidelines for the best time of year to eat the crabs. The phrase “September for females, October for males” references the belief that female crabs taste better in the ninth month of the lunar calendar, while male crabs are at their most flavorful in the 10th. Only then is the crab roe fully mature and ready for consumption. Considered the most delicious part of the crab, the roe is commonly paired with tofu, oranges, steamed buns, or meatballs.
While people in Western countries are no strangers to crab, they tend to prefer sea crabs, which are meatier. Many Westerners also skip the guts, including the crab roe.
It’s a common stereotype in the West that the Chinese eat anything and everything. This notion may have caught on partly because many Chinese people have a particular fondness for foods that take a long time to eat, yet which yield little nourishment. Aside from hairy crabs, this category includes chicken feet, duck neck, unhusked seeds, and sticks of chewy sugarcane. Where did China’s love of these dexterity-testing, time-consuming foods come from?
We can look to the country’s agricultural history for answers. Researchers at Shanghai’s Fudan University estimate that by the end of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, China had a population of nearly 200 million and counting, and agricultural productivity was struggling to keep pace.
It was not uncommon for famines to break out in the wake of natural disasters or wars, and many peasants ended up living hand to mouth. At such times, willingness to eat downright weird foods could mean the difference between life and death.
Chinese society has long faced the challenge of filling the bellies of its vast populace. Prior to the 1980s, even meat was considered a luxury, so when people were fortunate enough to get hold of a cut of meat or fish, they naturally wanted to make the most of it. Popular expressions like “make multiple meals from a single ingredient,” “waste not, want not,” and “crack the bones and drink the marrow” highlight a mentality that saw every part of the animal as potential sustenance.
China is also a broadly secular country, one with few religious taboos regarding which foods can and cannot be eaten. In Judeo-Christian cultures, the Old Testament laid out clear guidelines for what foods the faithful were and were not allowed to consume, mostly dictated by whether a food was seen as “clean” or “unclean.”
In his book “The Food of China,” the American academic Eugene N. Anderson supports the idea that Chinese society is relatively free from dietary taboos and restrictions, saying that the Chinese have therefore achieved a unique success in supporting maximum populations over maximum time. Some Chinese even grew accustomed to eating destructive agricultural pests, or at the very least feeding them to their poultry and livestock. Anderson argues that this practice was superior to using pesticides designed to kill off such insects, as it doesn’t damage the environment.
China’s love of dining on freshwater crabs — certainly not the most attractive-looking creatures — is further proof of Anderson’s assertion. As the famous author Lu Xun once wrote, “The first person to eat crab is very much to be admired.” Ever since, the phrase “the first person to eat crab” has been used in China to describe brave and enterprising individuals.
According to myth, the first crab ever eaten lived in the time of Da Yu, the legendary founder of China’s Xia Dynasty, deep in the country’s prehistory. The unlucky crab was a destructive pest known as Jiarenchong, which roughly translates as “pincher bug.” Eventually, a hero by the name of Ba Jie thought to kill this creature by boiling it in water, only to find himself intrigued by the bright red sheen of its shell and the fragrant aroma issuing from the pot. Ba removed Jiarenchong from the water and took a bite, whereupon he realized the creature was of unparalleled deliciousness.
In reality, any community with a long enough history will develop dietary customs that might be viewed by outsiders as bewildering, cruel, or even barbaric. What country’s citizens don’t delight in filling their bellies with food that the rest of us find strange? The Scots eat haggis, the French eat foie gras, and the valiant Swedes have made nose-bending fermented herring part of their national heritage.
We are what we eat. Food doesn’t just nourish our bodies; it binds groups together, creating a sense of identity through shared tastes. Food and drink can communicate emotions, tracing hidden pathways from our stomachs to our hearts.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Zhang Bo and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A dish of hairy crabs is displayed at a restaurant in Shanghai, Oct. 21, 2012. VCG)