Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Holy Crabs! - Man Wah and its hairy crabs

Autumn morning breezes reminded me that it's the time of the year when hairy crabs showed up in every Shanghainese restaurant menus in town. Well, that and the invitation from Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong for a preview of Man Wah's seasonal hairy crab menu which runs for 2 weeks from end of October.

Crab dishes are those that required as much chef's cooking skills as the ingredients itself, and one sure-bet way to get an idea of the quality of the crabs is from knowing their origin. For this special menu, Man Wah sourced their crabs from Cheng Long Hang (成隆行) - a top-notch crab purveyor who also operates their own restaurant in the Shanghai headquarter (which was appropriately named the Crab Palace). Through this collaboration, the restaurant is able to source and ship the best, freshest ones directly from the source instead of being at the mercy of middleman distributors.

Shanghai style "Smoked" Fish with Five Spices
We started off with a series of hot and cold Shanghainese appetizers. I particularly like the Shanghai-style "smoked" fish in five spices - instead of the traditional method of using freshwater fish sliced thinly with heavy sweet sauce (hence gave the dish more a crunchy or chewy texture and more focus on the marinate rather than the taste of the fish), here Chef Lee uses black cod fillet - that gave the dish a more succulent flavors with firm texture and not overfilling.

Crispy Mushroom Julienne, aka Vegetarian Crispy Eel in Chinese
Crispy eel is another Shanghainese specialty dish but here, chef did a little twist and presented a vegetarian version of it, using julienned winter mushrooms. Surprisingly it did retain the texture and in a sense, flavor of the original version.

"Drunken Crab" - marinated and cured with Chinese Hua Diao wine
I have to admit the next dish of "Drunked crab" - for which live crabs were cured and marinated with Chinese fermented rice wine (Hua Diao) - does require an acquired taste to fully appreciate. I had an unforgettable one a few years ago in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Shanghai and with that one still vividly in mind, this one fades in comparison - perhaps the wine's too strong or the crab's too small - or both. Nonetheless, that became my incentive to come back here when it's deeper into the crab season (like in a month's time) and the crabs are more prime to be consumed. 

The roes, the meat, the claws, the legs... within 3 minutes the crab was disassembled into manageable pieces for instant gratifications
In Cheng Long Hang's Shanghai restaurant, they have specialists available on the dining room floor to de-shell the crab for you by the table on request. Man Wah is planning to bring them in during the promotion and one of them are actually present at our dinner to give us a little demo of this special skill. While I am more a DIY person in the area of eating crabs, I was amazed at how efficient she was - in less than 3 minutes, the whole crab was de-shelled and presented and laid out in small pieces that one can eat without much effort. For those who would rather keep your hands clean than having the chance to lick your fingers after disassembling the crabs, I am sure this service would be much welcomed.

Braised Shanghainese Cabbage with Crab Meat
Usually during the hairy crab season, I am happy to have just the crabs steamed and eat them with ginger and vinegar, but tonight I was able to try out a number of other cooked crab dishes as well. My favorites were the crabmeat in a crispy pastry shell - similar to a quiche or egg tart with rich flavors of crab meat and roe filling instead - and braised shanghainese cabbage with crabmeat - every spoonful of soft cabbage was filled with the aroma and taste of the orange-colored crab roes and juicy meat. 

Stir-fried Hairy Crabs with Rice Cake and Salted Fish
Stir-fried hairy crab with rice cake and salted fish was another highlight of the evening. To be honest, it's the first time I heard of such combination even though I was told this is a traditional way of cooking. Unlike the thinly-sliced round rice cakes that I am more used to, this version has a gnocchi shape and texture, which actually worked better with the intensely flavored, flaky salted fish. It's so good that I didn't mind getting my hands dirty again to deshell and savour the stir-fried crabs that went with the dish. 

"Shanghainese breakfast" - our dessert platter based on traditional Shanghainese breakfast items with a twist
Our dessert of the evening was called "Shanghainese breakfast". Breakfast? you might ask. Here Chef Lee played with the typical items of a Shanghainese breakfast - soy milk, dough fritters and sticky rice rolls - and turn that into a dessert platter, with soy milk icecream, sweetened fritters, and deep-fried sticky rice cake. Think of it as a rice pudding a la mode and you got the idea how that tasted like. It's a perfectly executed fusion sort of dessert and I applauded his creativity in pulling this off. (I also appreciated the tip I got from the chef to make the soy milk icecream so soft and creamy) This, and the soothing hot ginger tea that was served at the end of the dinner (customary "digestif" drink after hairy crabs), capped a wonderful, delicious Tuesday evening.

Other dishes of the evening (from top left clockwise) - pulled marinated chicken, crispy tofu, premier crab roes with steamed rice, crab broth with tomatoes, wood fugus and baby greens, jelly fish with cucumber, crabmeat in a crispy shell

For hairy crab lover, there's an old Chinese motto that says, "Rounded belly in the ninth month; sharp belly in the tenth" (九月圓臍十月尖), which means female crabs (distinguished from their rounded abdominal flaps and with richer, firmer roes) are prime in the ninth month of Lunar calendar, followed by male ones (distinguished by the sharp abdominal flaps with more tender meat) the month after. As the ninth Lunar month fell between mid-October to mid-November this year, we can only expect even better crabs in the months to come. So, time to roll up your sleeves, get the crackers ready, bottles of rice wine well-stocked, and dive in to the crab season!

when? September 25, 2012
where? Man Wah, 25/F Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, Centrel
menu highlights? Everything to do with hairy crabs

Full set of pictures can be found here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/sets/72157631629215259/

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