Tag Archives: China

On hairy crabs: My dismal failure

On hairy crabs: My dismal failure

I was going to do it. I really, really was. Last night was the night I was going to buy, render unconscious and cook the flavour of the month: shanghai hairy crabs. These burrowing crabs, also known as mitten crabs, are so named for their furry claws that look like mittens. Come Autumn, these crabs hit the streets. Not in their finest gear, ready to party the night away, but fighting for space in green nylon bags in every smelly wet market and on various street corners throughout the city. People get totally crab bedonderd round about now. And naturally, I had to partake in the festivities! Live like the natives and all. So yesterday, full of bravado, I headed for the wet market ready to hunt down and bring home all the makings of a fine Shanghai meal. Well. If the first thing out of your mouth when you see your dinner is “Awwwwwww”, you know it’s probably going to be McDonald’s for you. I mean, they’re just so cute! They really look like little green alien babies, trying to keep their claws warm in little furry mittens. Once a crab has the dubious honour of being selected as chow, the stall (2 polystyrene coolers and maybe a scale) holder deftly grabs it out of the bag, folds in the legs and binds the whole thing with twine so that it can’t make a quick getaway. The entire process takes all of 5 seconds. I asked the friendly, elegantly dressed customer next to me how much they cost and she said RMB6 for one. (At least, I think that’s what she said? It was either that or “Sharp, my bru”, the hand signal for which is the same as 6 in China). That’s less than a dollar a crab. Damn, that’s cheap! They’re looking tastier already. And a local had told me the price, so there would be no laowai tax imposed. Being ripped off was another concern. (I am the world’s worst haggler. Once, in a market in Bangkok, I had already “negotiated” the price for a dress and upon handing the money over, the guy actually gave me a few baht back with a pitying look on his face!). But that was now taken care of. There really were no more excuses left, so it was time to choose which crabs I wanted. Now, here stories will differ depending on who you ask. The other customer would say it is all my imagination and she didn’t see a thing, but I swear, the first crab I picked up looked up at me with dark, sad eyes (just like Puss-in-Boots if his eyes had been on stalks), and it’s lower lip started quivering, tiny bubbles frothing out of it’s mouth like a death rattle. A tiny, furry claw reached out to me as if to gently touch my cheek, and I swear I could hear a little chorus of voices pleading “You are our only hope.” I gently placed the crab back where I found it, muttered something about it still being a long way to Qingpu, and shuffled off with my tail between my legs.

Fortunately, there’s a McDonald’s right at the bus stop on my way home.

But no worries! I awoke with new gusto this morning. A steadfast determination to make these crabs my bitch. The way I figured it was thus: The sooner I ensure the untimely demise of 6 of these crustaceans, the sooner I will be relieving them of their misery. Right? I mean, at least they won’t land up in a live hairy crab vending machine, destined to wait it out in a 5 degree fridge till someone with a few yuan comes along and pulls the lever, right? Right. This would be a good thing. I would be doing my share to make the world a better place. I decided that instead of braving the sad faces in the wet market, I would head to my nearest supermarket. Here the crab is kept cold, so they’re already in a state of semi-hibernation, and so would be less likely to make a last stand. Sure enough, hairy crab was the first thing I saw as I got to the fish counter. (It was also almost four times the price for the same size as the previous day’s leading me to wonder whether the helpful shopper really was just saying “Sharp my bru.”). Already trussed up and nestled in still rows on a bed of ice, it was easy to tell myself they were already dead. All I had to do was see who the little boys are and who the little girls are to ensure I get three of each. You see, the battle of the crab sexes is a hotly debated topic in Shanghai, with long arguments over decimated piles of crab over which sex has the sweetest meat and richest roe. The females usually win out, but I had to try for myself. So, all self congratulatory because I know to look for these differences before making my purchase, I picked up a crab and flipped it over… The crab was not dead. It was not even sleeping. Two little black eyes stared up at me as a wayward leg came loose from the twine. Flailing it’s furry mitten around wildly the little chap (or chick, I didn’t even get a chance to look) shouted “She’s saved me! I’m free!” before it tried to air swim away. Okay, not really. But it might as well have for how it made me feel like I’m the world’s worst human being, single-handedly responsible for the sad depletion of our oceans. I tucked the little leg back in the twine, put him back on his ice bed while muttering an apology to him, his brethren and their lady friends, and slunk off to the butchery.

So I am left shamefacedly writing this post, drowning my sorrows in a glass of whiskey while my husband cooks the neatly packaged pork rashers I bought as a substitute. I guess drunken shrimp is off the menu then.

Tucking into Shanghai Street Food

Tucking into Shanghai Street Food

Stinky tofu

The things we do in the name of investigative eating! Last night I finally bit the bullet. And the chòu dòufu, so to speak. It probably seems crazy that it has taken me three months to pluck up the courage to actually do something as simple as sampling tofu. But the assault inflicted on your olfactory senses by this very popular Shanghainese street snack is not something you can adequately explain to anyone. At least not without a dead pig and some poop to use as a scratch-and-sniff prop. Like walking behind a sweet old lady in a shop when she lets off a silent-but-deadly fart, the smell accosts you when you least expect it. You’ll be innocently crossing a street or rounding a corner when BAM! Is someone… frying human excrement?? If you could somehow solidify the breath of a halitosis sufferer who has just licked the sweaty butt crack of a hydrophobic garbage truck driver coming off the end of a hot summer’s day shift, you would have some idea of what these fried cubes of fermented tofu smell like. But when in Rome right? At least it’s plant related and didn’t wag its tail at some point. Fresh tofu is fermented in a brine containing fermented milk, vegetables, dried shrimp (in non-vegetarian versions), amaranth and mustard greens and herbs. Fermentation can take up to 3 months and the tofu is then cubed and fried on a cast iron plate with herbs and spices. The smell is so rancid that stories claiming that rotten meat and dead flies and even actual human faeces is used in the fermentation process are easy to believe! Apparently when it comes to chòu dòufu, the smellier the better. But I was assured that, like with durian fruit, once I get past the first bite, I would love it. “It doesn’t smell once you eat it!”, they said. “Just think blue cheese and you’ll love it!”, they said. Well, they lied. I managed four bites and I still thought it was vile. Yes, it’s cheap. Yes, it’s silky, but crispy and warm and salty. But it still smells like poop going down. I think I will have to change the tagline of this blog to “I make the mistakes so that you don’t have to”. But there are those who absolutely love it and swear you are only a true Shanghainese when you start craving stinky tofu. For now, I am happy to stay a boeremeisie and crave biltong.

That said, Shanghai street food (and street food in Asia in general) is fresh and tasty and very, very good. And it’s incredibly cheap. For around 20元 (US$3), two adults with healthy appetites can eat till they want to pop. Above all, it is safe. We have eaten our fill in China, Thailand and Vietnam and have yet to get sick. And as I have mentioned before, you might not always know what you’re eating, but I can guarantee you that you won’t unwittingly eat dog – beside it being far too expensive for the average street vendor, these days most of them prefer petting their domestic animals to seasoning them and then roasting till just done. So tuck in with abandon and don’t be scared to make mistakes. Street food is how the masses eat, whether it’s from a food cart attached to a bicycle, a basket hanging from a biǎndan across a little old lady’s shoulders, or sitting on undersized plastic chairs outside a store front. Amenities are limited to the essentials. There might be a scale, a propane tank or little coal fire if they need heat and a naked light bulb if they’re really fancy, but don’t expect refrigeration. The concrete cuisine you will find when you hit the streets will of course depend on where you are. Specialities differ from region to region, city to city and even from district to district. In Shanghai, shengjianbao is ubiquitous, but there is so much more nosh on offer, some of it surprising. Who would think that one of the tastiest naan breads I’ve ever had could be found in a little alley in Qingpu Town. The thin, crisp and chewy loaves are kneaded on the spot by the mom, sprinkled with sesame seeds (a little nod to where in the world we are) and then baked in an oven made from an old oil drum by the son. A little further down a small shop sells Chinese style fried chicken so crispy the colonel would return from his grave to get the secret recipe if he could. If you’re counting calories (and yes, you can stick to a diet quite easily here), you can tuck into subtly spiced, tender chicken drumsticks grilled over a coal fire. For the more adventurous, there is all manner of meat on a stick – from tender lamb kebabs and whole, tiny birds to skewered sausage and squid with a spice that packs a tremendous punch. Friendly vendors with smoking woks will whip up a mean chow mein for you – just nod your head when they point at the ingredients you want and shake your head at those you don’t. And if you like things only a little spicy, I suggest you shake your head vehemently when it comes to the chilli!

And when you’re almost (but not quite) stuffed, save a spot for a piece or three of  warm, prepared-on-the-spot peanut and black sesame brittle. The smell of roasting peanuts and sesame seeds and slowly caramelising sugar that hits you just when you think it is, sadly, all done is enough to make you start your street food adventure all over again.

The few things I mentioned here were eaten in just one night, after a stroll down just one street (muffin top explained). But there is so much more to taste and experience when you hit the streets in China. Some of it will be really, really bad, but for the most part it will be very, very good. Vendors often move to where the crowds are and you won’t necessarily find the same person in the same spot twice. So my suggestion? When the opportunity presents itself, grab it. And if you’re not sure where to go, just follow your nose. If you smell stinky tofu, drop everything and run.

Shanghai’s Venice

Shanghai’s Venice

Zhujiajiao is an ancient water town located on the Cao Gang River in the Qingpu district of Shanghai. Roughly 50 square kilometers of tree lined rivers and canals, winding cobbled lanes and well preserved Ming and Qing dynasty architecture lure hordes of day visitors keen to get out of the city for a bit. For this reason you should plan to get here early and preferably on a week day. By lunch time you will be fighting sweaty American tourists and hungry locals (who don’t ever seem to sweat) for the pork and pastries.

There are many temples, galleries, museums and old residences to explore here. The Kezhi Garden, Qing dynasty Post Office, Yuanjin Buddhist Temple, Tongtianhe Chinese Pharmacy, City God Temple, Y-Art Gallery, Shanghai Qianhua Art Gallery and Shanghai Handicraft Exhibition Hall all require an admission ticket, but entry into the town is free. The maze of pedestrian lanes house loads of shops selling traditional Chinese art work, engraved jade, delicate chopsticks (you can pick up a set engraved with your name in Chinese characters for US$0.50), silk clothing, duvets and pillows, scarves, jewellery, handmade embroidered bags and shoes, beautiful cheongsam (including the cutest little itty bitty ones for babies) and all the other usual tourist trap trinkets. But even though North Street is known as “a mile long road with a thousand shops” the discriminating tourist tax is high here, so unless you’re good at bargaining, don’t plan to come here purely for the shopping. Rather grab a tasty street snack and explore the stone cobbled lanes with their old style shopfronts and decorative red lanterns, walk down the quiet, deep alleyways or zigzag back and forth over the canals across the arched stone bridges.

There are loads of stalls selling a variety of foods from roasted pork knuckle to rose flavoured fermented bean curd, but one of Zhujiajiao’s proudest exports is the bamboo or reed leaf wrapped dark rice dumplings or zongzi. Also known as Grandma Dumplings (apo zong), the pillow shaped parcels of Zhujiajiao are wrapped with straw and are purportedly the best place in China to get them. That’s sort of like claiming that a certain shop in SA sells the best boerewors in the country. It’s a big freaken deal. And with some vendors selling up to 30 000 dumplings a day, this is a rumour best believed. The dumplings are stuffed with flavoured rice and may also include pork, red bean paste or red beans. Locals in the know recommend Xiaotian Apo Zong at 263 Bei Da Jie Lu as the best one to try.  For dessert my favourite Zhujiajiao snack is the flaky, sweet and salty stocking sole pastries. Although Tongli is most famous for these sesame topped treats, the ones in Zhujiajiao are just as moreish. Like the zongzi, every stall seems to have a different recipe and some are better than others but, like sex and pizza, even the bad ones are good. Read the rest of this entry