To Chinese gourmands, the words "Yangcheng Lake" should automatically evoke images of lusciously golden-and-white crab caviar, universally treasured from Hong Kong to Shanghai to Beijing. On my last trip to Hong Kong these adorable little crustaceans were sold at allegedly certified retailers for HKD$180 (CAD$23) for one little palm-sized crab. If you think that’s a bit over the top ... honestly, price isn’t even the problem.
The real issue is -- only 3,000 tonnes are hoisted from the waters of this small lake annually, compared to an estimated 100,000 tonnes marketed as genuine Yangcheng Lake Crabs worldwide. With a counterfeit ratio of 97%, where could one find the genuine genuine Yangcheng Lake Crabs?
It was time for a serious food trip. We purposely scheduled our 17-day trip of Eastern China in the autumn -- just to coincide with the harvest season of the highly prized delicacy at this prestigious locale -- and went on an expedition to a floating crab-farming village on Yangcheng Lake for a taste of the real thing.
I have to clarify -- this really isn’t as crazy as it sounds. The increasingly affluent middle class of Shanghai makes this pilgrimage every year, arriving in the village for a gratifying lunch and carrying home a basket of crabs as precious souvenirs. But I’ve never heard of foreigners coming here, and I did surprise the crab farmers when I called them in my imperfect Mandarin Chinese. As it turned out, the Mandarin Chinese of these Wu-dialect speakers wasn’t so perfect either, and one farmer agreed to drive his boat to the pier and pick us up at 10:30.
Nestled at the centre of the lake is the secluded crab-farming community of Lotus Island (Lianhuadao), accessible only thru the private motor boats of crab farmers and fishermen. Native islanders have worked these waters for generations, but in recent years the village has also opened itself as an agri-tourism destination to the city-dwellers of neighboring Suzhou and Shanghai. Visitors come to indulge in a colossal meal of organic farmhouse specialties, culminating in the climax of not just one, but a male-female pair of Yangcheng Lake Crabs, full of the two distinct and equally delicious forms of caviar.
This is about as certain as you can be about the authenticity of your Yangcheng Lake Crabs, when you’ve just seen the owner returning with fresh crabs from his assigned waters. 10-course feasts featuring TWO crabs per person range from RMB 150 to 250 (depending on your choice of crab sizes) per person with free pick-up from the lakeside, a bargain basement price compared to anything found in Hong Kong or even Shanghai. For comparison we paid RMB 158 the previous night in a Suzhou restaurant for two crabs alone, and those weren’t even Yangcheng Lake Crabs. You simply can’t beat the price-performance ratio here ... and plus ... there’s the bonus of exploring an authentic Chinese fishing village after the meal.
Awaiting our arrival from the 10-minute boat ride was a meticulously prepared feast of monumental proportions. After two weeks of MSG-laden fare from city restaurants, we’re so delighted to find authentic home-cooked dishes deriving from the island’s own fresh produce, starting with cold appetizers such as these Salted Duck Eggs. Remember that everything had to be shipped in by boat at a cost, so you can count on the ingredients to be as locally-sourced as possible.
How good were these organic ingredients? One of my favorite memories of the meal was this unassuming dish of Turnip Salad, which was really nothing more than freshly shredded turnips with perhaps a pinch of sugar and salt. But this was so much better than any turnip / radish I’ve ever tasted in anywhere in the world, so sweet, juicy and crisp, and possessed such a concentrated radish flavor that I could never find in city supermarkets.
Another example was this simple appetizer of Stem Lettuce, a fall and winter favorite of local peasants in Eastern China. Plainly stir-fried and lightly seasoned, these organic vegetables taste a thousand times better than their mass-produced counterparts served elsewhere. This was a bit of an eye-opener for me, as these incredibly fresh and flavorsome veggies were impossible to purchase in metropolitan China and Hong Kong.
The emptied plates kept on piling and suddenly we’re at our fourth appetizer, a cold dish of Chicken Feet in Brine. This Eastern Chinese style of preparation seemed somewhat similar to the Cantonese favorite of White Cloud Chicken Feet, though I still personally preferred the lightly vinegared Cantonese version. Keep in mind that there were only two of us in this attempt to complete a 10-course meal, and you can see why we’re starting to worry about limited stomach room.
After four appetizers we finally arrived at the main courses, starting with this Sauce-Braised Free Range Chicken. While the meat was chewy and flavorful as expected of a free-range bird, I did find the sauce a little light and watery. I knew I shouldn’t judge this harshly though as these weren’t restaurant presentations, but momma’s cooking from the family kitchen of the crab farmer’s wife and aging mother.
Spiny crustaceans aren’t the only produce from these shallow lakebeds, as regional favorites such as periwinkles have also benefitted from the pristine water quality, driven of course by the enormous economic importance of the Yangcheng Lake Crabs. These Stir-Fried Periwinkles with Scallions are a staple in informal Eastern Chinese meals and always seem to come in a dark, savory and mildly spicy soy sauce. Even though the tips of the shells were already sheared off to allow the meat to be sucked out easier, this was still the second most time-consuming dish to finish, next to the crabs.
If you’re wondering how 2 people could manage to finish all this food, to tell you the truth I don’t know either. If this was a regular restaurant and I had choices in ordering, I would have stopped long before this tempting dish of Oil-Braised Manchurian Wild Rice Stems arrived at our table. While I did feel obliged to finish everything and make the old grandma happy, this was getting a little too much.
Just when we thought we were stuffed to our gills, out of the kitchen arrived this HUGE plate of Red-Braised Freshwater Bream, yet another fresh ingredient hoisted by the villagers out of the local waters. While I’m normally not a fan of freshwater fish, the relatively low level of "muddy" flavor in this fish made it quite enjoyable ... and this was after finishing the previous seven dishes. I don’t know how we managed to finish this entire 1 kg fish, but we did, right before the grand entrance of the ONE dish that was the whole reason for this trip.
Presenting the royalty of all Chinese seasonal delicacies -- the rare and highly distinguished Yangcheng Lake Crab.
More expensive than all other dishes of this meal combined, these 4 certified Yangcheng Lake Crabs alone would easily command upwards of HKD$1600 (CAD$205) in specialty restaurants in Hong Kong. But we’re at the home of the farmer who raised these crabs, and the cost they charged here was RMB 150 to 250 (CAD$24 to 40) per pair, depending on crab sizes. It was a no-brainer considering that we had to fly 11 hours to Shanghai -- we went for the largest, plumpest and most expensive crabs at RMB 250 a pair ... and that’s the price including the other 9 courses in this ginormous feast.
I don’t think I need to explain the adrenaline of peeling open these freshly steamed beauties and sucking out the white, sweet and deliciously gooey male caviar. Every fan of Hairy Crabs probably has his or her own reasons for favoring either the male or the female caviar, and for me it’s about the mouthfuls of syrupy, gelatinous male caviar that clings to the tongue and oozes its delicately distinctive flavor. According to the timeless traditions of the local gourmands we arrived at just the right time, during the prime male caviar season in the 10th month of the Lunar Calendar, or about November in the Western calendar. This was the easily the best, and certainly the most voluminous, male caviar I’ve ever had in one crab.
For female caviar however we probably arrived a month too late as per conventional wisdom, and the volume of female caviar was quite average to be honest. But what the crab lacked in quantity, it made up in terms of the quality of its succulent golden caviar. If you’re one of those finicky eaters who get turned off by the characteristic slight bitterness of female caviar, this crab would be perfect as it carried absolutely no hint of bitterness at all.
All this sticky, viscous finger-licking goodness probably blew our cholesterol limit for the week, if not the entire month. But this is what everyone comes to Yangcheng Lake for, and for the two of us living in faraway Canada, this would likely be an experience of a lifetime. I don’t envision the need to return in future even if we pass through Eastern China again -- we’ve already accomplished our ultimate pilgrimage.
Somehow there was still more food to be had, and somehow we did manage to find the last bit of room for this excellent dessert of Sweet Squash Porridge. By now you’ve seen why this feast was worth every single yuan, and why we specifically set aside a half day to make this easy trip from Suzhou. This isn’t something I would recommend for all travelers reading this article, but if you’re as much of a voracious foodie as I am, you already know where your heart is pulling!
Bill for Two Persons
|10-Course Set Meal with One Large Pair of Yangcheng Lake Crabs||RMB 250|
|10-Course Set Meal with One Large Pair of Yangcheng Lake Crabs||RMB 250|
|TOTAL||RMB 500 (CAD$79)|
The added bonus of visiting the remote Lotus Island is a chance to see how the famous Yangcheng Lake Crabs are farmed in their traditional enclosed pens, all scattered methodically in the open waters surrounding the island. It is this system of fishnet gates that gave rise to the popular name of Big Sluice Crabs (Dazhaxie), even though the days of herding crabs through gates and harvesting by hand are long gone. Along with the tempestuous ocean off Alaska where King Crabs are harvested, and perhaps the Hokuriku Coast of Japan, this in my mind would be the mecca for crab eaters.
If you want to have your crab and eat it too, there’s a farmer's market in the village where you can purchase a few crabs and bring back to the cities. We didn’t, as we knew we had enough cholesterol being so well fed for the past two weeks, touring four different provinces in Eastern China. It’s time to wrap up our journey and head back to the starting and ending point of our circular trip, the megapolis of Shanghai.
TRANSPORTATION AND PRACTICALITIES
There are dozens of these informal crab-farming eateries on Lotus Island at the centre of Yangcheng Lake, operating between the official opening date (typically late September) of the crabbing season to the end of the Lunar Calendar Year (January-ish). October and November are generally the best months to visit, the earlier being considered the prime season for female caviar and the latter for male caviar.
To reach Lotus Island, the best approach is to have a Chinese-speaking person call the Crab Farm a couple days ahead (we did it on the same morning, but only because it was a Saturday during peak season) to ensure availability. Agree on a time for the farmer to send a boat to pick you up. But most importantly, some farmers only serve the smaller pier on the north side of the lake which isn’t very accessible by public transit. So make sure the farmer will pick you up at the pier beside the Yangcheng Lake Tourist Centre (Yangchenghu Lvyou Jisan Zhongxin), which is on the west side of the Yangcheng Lake. Write down the time and pier number where the farmer will meet you.
Getting to the Yangcheng Lake Tourist Centre is relatively easy. Start from the Suzhou Train Station and walk downstairs to the local bus station, which is the end terminus for Bus #87. Take this bus for about an hour and get off at the Yangcheng Lake Tourist Centre bus stop, where a side road to the right leads towards a large parking lot. The pier is at the end of the parking lot.
Contact information for our host is as follows:
Crab Farm / Restaurant: Huzhong Xiezhuang
Website: HairyCrabs.com (in Chinese)
Phone: 0512-65442361 (call in Chinese only, ask for the owner Mr.Xu)
Address: Lianhua Village, Yangchenghu Town, Xiangcheng District, Suzhou
Other crab farmers’ phone numbers on our back-up list:
0512-65449686 - Nongjia Xieyuan
13506213873 - Huxian Renjia
13901545955 - Jiaxin Xieyuan
0512-65443797 - Zaizhuiyifang
15962239262 - Fuji
0512-65446213 - Xuji
0512-62270089 - Xiaozhang
15162447096 - Shenji
13913567411 - Xiao Bao