I have eaten so much food this week. And not just ‘cause of Thanksgiving.
In Shanghai this time of year it’s hairy crab season. They’re freshwater crabs, with fur on their claws, and the ones from Yangcheng Lake are a delicacy. They’re given as gifts the way tea or cognac is given; authentic crabs fetch a premium – sometimes dozens or hundreds of dollars per kilo. They’re a seasonal luxury good. As such, there are counterfeit crabs, or rather, varying levels of authenticity. Some farmers will raise young crabs in a nearby pond and dip or bring them to term in Yangcheng Lake and label it 正宗. Zhèngzōng. “Authentic.” It’s partly sanctioned, I believe, because weird stuff happens with the supply and demand of thousands-year-old regional fare in a country of 1.3 billion people.
The male crabs especially are prized for their semi-transluecent roe (okay, semen) which in Chinese is called “cake” for its cakey texture. It is really delicious. The crabs are steamed, eaten with your hands, the meat dipped in a sauce of black rice vinegar, ginger, and a little sugar. A kind of Shanghainese crawfish boil.
When I saw Ai Weiwei’s “He Xie” piece at the Brooklyn Museum in September, what struck me wasn’t the political statement but the memory of Shanghai in the fall, and years ago going out on a small dining boat for hairy crab pulled fresh from the water.
This trip, in five days, we’ve had it three times. Once at my parents’ apartment, once in a restaurant whose name is lost in the flurry of meals, and third at the home of my grandfather’s cousin, who is ninety-five and so alive he’ll say to you, “Can you tell I’m ninety-five?”
I couldn’t tell.