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Chinese Takeout: The “Cult of Crab” Surrounding Yangcheng Lake

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Ahhhh, autumn. In some parts of the world, the brisk turn of weather drawing summer to a close heralds the onslaught of pumpkin spice everything. In China, fall’s culinary obsession is markedly different: hairy crab.

It’s a mania that sweeps most ferociously through eastern China — particularly Shanghai and Jiangsu­ province, near where most of the crabs are produced. Yet, even farther afield, like in the northern capital of Beijing, the crustacean craze can be felt, where high-end restaurants promote menus dedicated to the hairy crab. Online, retailers do a stiff trade in shipping hairy crabs to customers across the country.

But the true epicenter of China’s cult of crab is just outside of Shanghai at Yangcheng Lake, where an estimated 100,000 people flock every weekend during high season.

The Place

The most famous area for hairy crabs are the lakes south of the Yangtze River, where the crabs live before migrating towards the ocean to mate each autumn. It’s during this time that they are harvested. Of all the lakes near Nanjing, Wuxi, Changzhou and Suzhou, the crabs from Yangcheng Lake in Kunshan, close to the Yangtze River’s estuary, are considered the most premium.

A few days before the official season kicks off, Yangcheng Lake is reminiscent of a beachside vacation town on the off-season. Streets lined exclusively with crab restaurants and huge complexes surround the lake — an entire economy based on crab. We pull up to Yujia Denghuo at Yangcheng’s southern tip just a few days before the lake’s official hairy crab season begins (September 23 this year). It’s a sprawling compound with well over 100 restaurants set over water and a labyrinthine parking lot that can comfortably fit thousands of cars.

Yangcheng Lake hairy crab restaurants

A few of the many crab-centric restaurants at Yujia Denghuo, on Yangcheng Lake’s southern tip

“On the weekends, you have to book,” our server at Shuixiang Xie Lou tells us. A 30-year-old brand, Shuixiang Xie Lou is a wanghong (synonymous for “influencer-approved”) hairy crab place, better known for their online crab shop than their brick-and-mortar restaurant: a four-story eatery with a non-descript façade that blends into the literal hundreds of other crab-centric spots. It’s head-spinning to imagine the parking lot on weekends.

The History

Also known as the Chinese mitten crab, the hairy crab (大闸蟹 dazhaxie) is a burrowing freshwater crab with distinctive patches of brown fur on its claws. While they once lived wild in Yangcheng Lake and migrated naturally to the sea, the crabs became increasingly rare in the late 20th century due to factors like dams, pollution, and environmental changes.

A burst of farming started after the 1980s, which led to overpopulation and a decline in quality. Eventually, measures such as “reducing production, breeding with more scientifically advanced techniques and increasing the lake’s small aquatic life” were put in place to address the problem, according to National Geographic China.

A view of Yangcheng Lake, with a sign that reads “加强质量管理 / 建设优质工程” (“strengthen quality control / cultivate top-quality engineering”)

Yet supply still cannot meet demand. In recent years, Yangcheng’s crab farming output has shrunk, for reasons ranging from natural causes such as weather conditions, to the intentional reduction of breeding zones to improve quality.

Despite quality hairy crabs originating from other places nearby like Wuxi’s Tai Lake (太湖), the cult of crab is strong around Yangcheng. It’s so strong in fact, that every year starting in the lead-up to the lake’s official season, the market is flooded with counterfeit crabs, fraudulently claiming to be harvested in Yangcheng.

This annual deluge of fakes are all part of Yangcheng Lake’s modern-day fame, with certified originals bearing their own identification numbers and efforts such as blockchain technology employed to identify shady crabs.

The Food

Whether from Yangcheng Lake or not, at their best, hairy crab’s flesh is sweet and its marigold-colored roe both buttery and creamy. The hairy crab obsession centers on this fatty roe, which ripens in the ninth and tenth lunar months, around late September (females) and late October (males).

Yangcheng Lake hairy crab eaten

A Yangcheng Lake hairy crab in its ideal state: eaten

While plenty of dishes featuring hairy crab are classics and whole tasting menus are created around the crustacean, the most traditional approach is simple and to the point: steam and serve with a dipping sauce of ginger and vinegar. For an ingredient that can soar up to 50USD per piece, low intervention makes sense.

Considered “cooling” by traditional Chinese medicine principles, crab should be paired with “warming” food and drink like Shaoxing huangjiu (黄酒, yellow wine), which is typically drunk with it.

Related:

A Mid-Autumn Delicacy: How to Cook and Eat Hairy Crab

Beyond this, the restaurants surrounding Yangcheng Lake like Shuixiang Xie Lou largely serve nongjiale-style (countryside-inspired) fare — large platters of eggs with Chinese leeks and steamed fish with ginger and scallion.

But let’s not forget — much like the millions of food tourists that flock to Yangcheng Lake each year, you’re here for the crab.

All images: Cat Nelson