Crab is prized in China year round – it's a dish with "special moment" written all over it in the Chinese family. But in November, when the hairy crabs of the Yangtze delta start developing egg roe, a special passion takes hold. And this fall, it has reached new depths.
The object of recent Chinese desire is a feisty fist-sized freshwater bottom-dweller harvested from a single lake near Suzhou. Known as the Yangcheng Lake Hairy Crab, it enjoys a unique habitat: iron-rich soil that leaves a yellowish tint on the claws, a hardpan lake bottom that forces the crab to develop muscular legs, and shallow sun-filled waters that supposedly promote robustness. The combo makes Yangcheng the Rolls Royce and the Vidalia onion of China's crab world.
For years, Yangcheng crabs were mostly found in kitchen steamers in Shanghai and Hong Kong. But now, the crab's rise in power and popularity has begun to parallel China's own: In an urban China of status and money, Yangcheng crabs have achieved, very quickly, a reputation as the finest and purest flavor in the crab palate.
What's more, for an expanding middle class with disposable income, leisure time, and a relatively new love of eating out, the lake crab is an attainable if expensive delicacy. It has a dark green compact shell, hair on its legs and around its underbelly – and nearly all are imported from the Yangtze River as babies the size of quarters.
Markets for authentic hairy crabs, combined with even larger markets of fake hairy crabs, run in the hundreds of millions. Prices for authentic Yangcheng crabs have bubbled up to as much as $45 per crab, from $5 a crab in the 1990s.
"Crabs come in a thousand flavors in China," says Ping Yuan, an executive chef in Beijing. "But the Yangcheng lake crab is No. 1. The flavor is amazing, and the whole country wants to eat it. But most of what is available are Yangcheng fakes."
Food in modern China is of enormous cultural importance. Seafood is at the top of the hierarchy – something with status to share with friends or on special occasions.
Technically, crab exists in the middle of the seafood hierarchy. It doesn't carry the same status heft as lobster, shark fin, or abalone. But for ordinary Chinese, the crab is special. In the popular imagination of an aspiring middle class, crab reflects prosperity in a way that elite dishes like shark fin probably never will.
Few families would countenance a crab dinner, for example, without the father or mother present. Nor is the delight in the experience of wolfing down chunks of meat, as per the lobster; in fact, a hairy crab has precious little meat. Lake crab is all about savoring the flavor.
Less than a decade ago, Bacheng was an obscure lake town, according to crab harvesters and restaurant owners. Now, with superhighways putting Shanghai an hour away, the area is mobbed through the fall. Trains, buses, and cars from east China, and tours from Japan and Hong Kong, throng lakefront shops and floating boats.
"What was here seven years ago?" asks Kang Luo, a parking lot attendant born in Bacheng who carries a walkie-talkie. "Nothing! Today, I've let in almost 3,000 cars."
Girls with crab brochures accost vehicles with out-of-town plates at intersections. Neon glows on the quiet lake at night above restaurants with names like "Pearl Crab," "Every Day Happy Crab," and "Purple Crab." Tourists emerge from shops with boxes of live crabs packed in grass matting.
"People are really loving the hairy crab. They drive hours to find the best places," says a Shanghai traveler in the construction business, whose wallet sports crab-house business cards.
"I've had crab three days in a row, and I've come back again today," says Steven Li, a Singaporean who lives in Shanghai, and whose Porsche sits in the parking lot. "My girlfriend loves coming here. It is an event that we can repeat."
Unsurprisingly, the five-year crab craze has spawned a huge industry of fakes. Perhaps only one of every 70 crabs sold as Yangcheng is the genuine article, studies show. The local Jiangsu area is pockmarked with similar lakes, and the crab species is virtually the same, so impostors are easy to produce. The difference in taste is roughly akin to that between cage-raised and free-range chickens. The meat is grainier and sweeter. Yet without tests, even many Yangcheng residents can't always judge a crab by its spiny cover.
Four years ago, to try to block the fakery, Yangcheng fisheries started to lightly torch the crab with a laser ID number as they were pulled from the waters. But that practice has been abandoned. The laser numbers proved easy to duplicate. A $5 stand-in from a nearby lake can become a $35 Yangcheng crab in seconds.
"Crab pirates easily duplicated the laser numbers," says De Zhou Zhu, owner of Big Brother De's crab house on the lake, which sports a photo of former President Jiang Zemin eating there.
"I've stopped shipping the crabs, and only sell from this shop," Mr. De adds. "My agents in Hong Kong and Singapore were starting to sell fakes in my name."
"Even if you come to Yangcheng, if you don't have the right contacts, you may buy fake crabs," says Wang Wen Long, owner of Wang Fu's Delight Crab on the lake.
At the height of the 2003 season, more than 100,000 tons of hairy crabs marked with the Yangcheng Lake imprint were sold. Yet the Yangcheng Lake Crab Trade Association report for that year claimed the output of the lake was 1,500 tons.
Ingenious methods of detecting fakes have been developed. One involves placing a live crab on a glass table. The jist of the exercise is to test leg strength. While other lakes have a silty bottom that allows the crabs to feed while remaining stationary, the hardpan of Yangcheng means the crabs must move around. If a crab can scramble on the table with power and velocity, it is considered more likely to be authentic.
Mr. Wang of Delight Crabs is most concerned about pollution and "overfishing the lake." In the past year, the practice of "dining boats" – where parties could have crabfests on the lake – has been stopped. "We have been taking too much from Yangcheng," he says. "This one lake can't satisfy all of China."
Crabs have a strong claim on the Chinese imagination. In the popular film "The Joy Luck Club," about the success of four first-generation Chinese-American families, the narrator always ruefully respects the elaborate rituals her mother adopts when serving crab.
The crab has also been a metaphor for tyrannical or duplicitous behavior. During the Cultural Revolution, the infamous "Gang of Four," including Mao's wife, Jing Qing, were known in street lingo as "the crabs."
The moniker referenced a lack of straightforwardness as the gang conducted highly personalized purges and other extreme behaviors.
Just so, crabs rarely move back and forth, but scuttle adroitly from side to side, in ways difficult to predict and follow.