I sat slumped against the window just six hours into the sixteen-hour flight from Newark, New Jersey to Shanghai, China. My three roommates slept beside me, in transit to visit my roommate, Ruting’s, hometown.
The guidebook on China sitting in my lap contained a section broken down by month, advertising the best festivals or special attractions, ranging from Buddha’s Birthday to the Great Wall Marathon to Chinese New Year. The celebrations get a little sparse in the fall and early winter months, however. From October through December the only attraction (aside from “China getting pretty cold” and tourist numbers dropping) is Hairy Crabs in Shanghai. We were arriving at the perfect time to enjoy the Shanghai delicacy!
After a crisp sunny day in Suzhou full of gardens, art, and architecture we were once again in the dark, speeding by an enclave of tall buildings adorned with flashing, neon signs.
“Wow, it looks like Vegas!”
We all stood corrected. Some of the signs catered to our limited ability to understand Chinese, and enclosed the characters in flashing crabs, waving their claws welcomingly. Ruting, effortlessly switching between Mandarin and English, informed us that some buildings kept it simple and advertised “crabs,” while others took it farther with “BEST crabs,” and some farther still with questioningly enticing crab puns. Being advertised weren’t just crabs, but hairy crabs, Shanghai hairy crabs, and in buildings that cast shadows over the Yangcheng Lake, their prized habitat.
While Crab Vegas was indeed captivating, we sped on, headed for somewhere better. Ruting’s mom boasted all of the best friends – the owner of the French bakery down the block, the owner of the Korean barbeque one metro stop north, and, perhaps best of all, a family of crab farmers located 40 minutes out of downtown Shanghai who welcomed us into their home, transformed into an intimate, one-table restaurant.
Little dishes of brown sauce adorned the table. Finely minced ginger chunks floated in a bath of vinegar, some warmth to accompany the notoriously cold crab. Rather than a reflection of temperature, this description of warmth and coolness was a manifestation of yin and yang, a fine balance taken seriously in China. Cold foods consist of soy products like tofu, crab and fish, and most fruits among other others while examples of warm foods include beef, ginger, and fried foods. There are no strict guidelines on whether a food is cold, a yin food, or warm, a yang food, but is rather intuitive and learned experimentally. Consumption of too many cold foods threatened diarrhea, while a warm imbalance expresses itself as cold sores and stomach irritation.
Ruting’s mother explained to us further: These different foods manipulate the balance of the body, but it begins before that even, with qi. Qi is “the original air” that fills our bodies. It rotates through the canals of our bones and, when cycling properly, this circling life force grants us energy and comfort. However, the qi can get stuck in the crevices through which it travels. When this happens, pain and discomfort results. The balance is overthrown.
A plate piled high with steaming crabs was brought to the table. The crabs are small, with bodies not larger than the palm of one’s hand, and spindly legs thinner than my fingers. The crabs were from a freshwater lake, but being from landlocked Colorado the fishy smell swirling up visibly from their hot shells reminded me of the ocean. From behind, the crabs looked like the same ones served in Maryland, sans the Old Bay seasoning. However, from the front, it appeared as if each crab had been smeared with a sticky, thick, gray mud.
This was their hair, their namesake. Stubble befitting a hairy crab covered their thin legs. But their front claws made them uniquely deserving. I followed the others’ lead, and pulled the shell away from the abdomen, and plucked out the undesired spongy lungs. I glanced down at the plush white meat coated with bright golden roe. Roe is to crab as caviar is to fish and it’s prized for its rich flavor. It is egg mass, which makes the female crabs more valuable than the males and as it’s best ripe, the maturation of the roe dictates the crabs’ season. I was managing a balance of my own at the dinner table - I was predominantly vegetarian back in the States, but here I didn’t want to miss out on anything. I scooped up a small amount of the vibrant roe with my chopstick and brought it to my tongue. The small, creamy portion spread around my whole mouth, as flavorful as I imagined an entire little leg to be. I then cracked a leg at its joint and brought the hollow opening to my lips after dipping it in the warm sauce. I sucked, harder than I thought I’d have to, and a cylinder of meat half the width of a pencil flew into my mouth. The crab was sweet and juicy, and I quickly cracked another leg. Traveling was a time to explore – even if it meant cheating on my diet at the recommendation of the guidebook.
Erin Mooz is currently a senior at Princeton University and enjoys learning as much outside of the classroom as within.