The Shanghai hairy crab has been considered a gourmet delicacy in eastern China and Shanghai for hundreds of years. The 17th century playwright Li Yu coveted the crustaceans so much so that he wrote: “While my heart lusts after them and my mouth enjoys their delectable taste (and in my whole life there has not been a single day when I have forgotten them), I can’t even begin to describe or make clear why I love them, why I adore their sweet taste, and why I can never forget them… Dear crab, dear crab, you and I, are we to be lifelong companions?”

The hairy crab, also known as the Chinese mitten crab, is so named for its trademark furry glove-like large pincers. The smallish crustacean – no bigger than the size of an average person’s palm – is native to the coastal estuaries of eastern Asia, from Korea in the north to the Fujian province of China in the south.

The crab is eaten only in the autumn, during the ninth and tenth months of the Chinese lunar calendar (approximately October to December): the female crab roe ripens in the ninth month, and the males in the tenth, and it is this silky, egg-yolk orange crab roe that is so hankered after. The female crabs are slightly smaller in size than the males, and the roe is of a brighter colour.

It is the hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake, a freshwater lake northeast of the city of Suzhou in the Jiangsu Province, that are the most coveted. The crabs from this lake now come with their own certificate of authenticity and identification number; these crabs are so popular and lusted after that they now fetch high prices (as high as 680-700 yuan or roughly $105 per kilogram), and many fakes are sold on the streets of China. The hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake are often exported to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and high-profit foreign markets.

According to Chinese medicine, the flesh of the hairy crab is cold (yin), and should therefore never be paired with other ‘cold’ foods such as lotus root, bamboo shoots, bitter gourd or pomelo, and it should never be eaten with persimmon, as it’s thought to be a toxic combination. There are also parts of the crab it’s inadvisable to eat, such as the pillowy lungs and the stomach, and the heart should definitely be avoided as it is said that it is even colder than the meat. The hairy crab is nearly always eaten with huangjiu (Chinese yellow wine) or ginger tea, both warming foods; the flesh is often dipped into a sauce made of vinegar, shredded ginger, red sugar and soy sauce.