The ecstasy and the ordeal of eating hairy crabs

The hairy crab is an autumnal delicacy. — Pictures by CK Lim
The hairy crab is an autumnal delicacy. — Pictures by CK Lim

COMMENTARY, Oct 15 — It’s a ritual. Every year around October, we call up a reputable Chinese restaurant and reserve a table. ‘Tis the season for hairy crabs.

YOU: It’s time!

ME: There’s a new episode of The Boys already?

YOU: What? No. It’s time for hairy crabs!

ME: Oh.

YOU: FINALLY.

YOU: I HAVE WAITED ALL YEAR FOR THIS.

YOU: HAIRY. CRABS.

ME: Hooray?

There is a craft to break down a hairy crab so as not to waste any edible parts.
There is a craft to break down a hairy crab so as not to waste any edible parts.

See, my distinct lack of enthusiasm stems from how I view the process of eating hairy crabs as one of low R.O.I. (return-on-investment): so much work for so little meat. Yet it’s the source of high pleasure for others.

I get it. But still.

Even when the server (typically) breaks down the hairy crab for you, there’s still some effort required for the diner to extract every last morsel of succulent flesh from the shell, claws and legs.

Hairy crabs — ecstasy for some, an ordeal for others.

Yet I can’t deny I appreciate the joy this seasonal seafood brings to those I love and care for. It’s a ritual for them, something beyond the sweetness of the hairy crab’s delicate flesh or the decadence of its golden roe.

Practice makes perfect: Serving hairy crabs in Bangkok (2019).
Practice makes perfect: Serving hairy crabs in Bangkok (2019).

I am reminded of Monsieur Bagnols, the floor cleaner in Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, handicapping Michelin three-star restaurants in France that he had visited on his annual treats. It’s worth working hard all year round and saving up for what sparks joy... for you.

It’s a ritual, and a beautiful one.

A once-in-a-year experience means you have the other 364 days of the year to look forward to it. The waiting itself can be pleasurable, the anticipation half the fun so they say.

Then the day finally comes. We are swiftly seated, with courteous efficiency. Nothing is tedious; let’s not forget people watching is part of the experience.

We observe a table of tai-tais already done with their meal when we arrive. Gossip, however, well, there’s no end to that. Waving shining jewels and trinkets in the air, all the better to animate their stories.

Later, another small party is seated: a well-heeled couple and their adult son. Rich Dad proceeds to admonish Rich Son throughout the entire meal, reminding him he doesn’t understand the Ways of the World between sips of pu’er.

From start to finish: Whole hairy crabs to carefully laid out claws and legs.
From start to finish: Whole hairy crabs to carefully laid out claws and legs.

Wealthy folk; some appear happy, some appear less so.

We aren’t wealthy folk, not if judged by financial means. We make ends meet and for that we are grateful enough. Times are hard. Perhaps this year we should take a break from this ritual. Perhaps the hairy crabs can wait another year.

But with how stressful things are, we decide we deserve a respite from all the doom and gloom. This autumnal delicacy is a symbol of how the seasons repeat, how the years pass and we still here.

The ecstasy and the ordeal of eating hairy crabs is but a once a year affair. However busy we are, we know we will make time for it and for each other.

We admire with bated breath as our server arrives and shows us a pair of freshly steamed hairy crabs. Now comes the work. There is a craft to breaking down one so as not to waste any edible parts.

Practice makes perfect. We recall being served hairy crabs in Bangkok last year by an elegant maître d’ who was a vision of focus and flow. Every motion was smooth and rehearsed. No squandered energy.

The carapace is where the true treasure of the hairy crab can be found.
The carapace is where the true treasure of the hairy crab can be found.

From start to finish, it was a performance but also a thing of beauty. Whole hairy crabs to carefully laid out claws and legs. The maître d’ beamed at us with pride when she had completed her task.

The crab claws and legs draw more attention, of course, but the carapace is where the true treasure of the hairy crab can be found. Luxurious hairy crab roe is precious manna; we only get to indulge in it once a year.

Perhaps enjoying life is about fully experiencing what is before us, truly seeing it. We hear the laughter of the tai-tais, cackling at a scandalous revelation. What a blessing to be with friends who understand you, who take you for exactly who you are.

YOU: It’s okay if you find it mafan (troublesome) to peel the crabs. I’ll do it for you lah.

ME: *melts*

Lovely gestures — unexpectedly romantic — aside, we mustn’t forget it's never just an A/B situation. There are other options beyond to eat hairy crabs or to not eat hairy crabs. Look beyond.

Luxurious hairy crab roe (left). Spinach with crabmeat and egg white (right).
Luxurious hairy crab roe (left). Spinach with crabmeat and egg white (right).

Restaurants always find new ways to offload their products; they call this “culinary creativity”, I believe. So we have chawan mushi infused with hairy crab roe. We have blanched spinach with an unctuous sauce of hairy crabmeat and egg white.

For less industrious diners, there is of course fried rice topped with hairy crab roe and crabmeat. This is — no surprises here — my favourite go-to. I don’t see it as sloth but being selective with what I ought to apply my energies to.

However we choose to eat our hairy crabs, they are delicious because we choose to enjoy them as they are. We give thanks for our meal, whatever form it takes.

We hear a loud snort from the next table. Rich Dad is apparently displeased with the naïveté displayed by Rich Son. Their food lies untouched, cold grease congealing.

Rich Dad grunts again, his snout bristling, then launches into another tremendous tirade.

For less industrious diners: Fried rice topped with hairy crab roe and crabmeat.
For less industrious diners: Fried rice topped with hairy crab roe and crabmeat.

We count our blessings he doesn’t expectorate but the tai-tais at the other table evidently disagree; they mask up, call for the bill and depart posthaste. They offer Rich Dad monstrous looks; he doesn’t notice.

I remember what my own father used to tell me: Wealth doesn’t guarantee you happiness. He’s right, of course. Being unhappy guarantees unhappiness, that much I know.

So I choose to be happy.

I am having a scrumptious meal with someone who’s enjoying every snap, crackle and slurp of these incredibly inconvenient crustaceans. We talk about everything under the sun, from stuff that’s fluff to tougher topics.

And I realise I couldn’t be happier.

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