The essential guide to eating hairy crabs in Shanghai

Fun fact: Hairy crabs go through a sexual awakening and begin to breed actively as it gets colder, which is why there's more of them for us (top predators) to enjoy in the fall

Photo courtesy of Wang Bao He

By Coquina Restrepo

“When autumn comes, the crabs get itchy legs.”

We promise the above quote is a lot more poetic in Mandarin, but here's what it means: as it gets colder, the Chinese mitten crab aka dazhaxie (大闸蟹) goes through a sexual awakening and begins to breed actively (so there's more of them for us top predators to enjoy).

As a port city, Shanghai has always been a hub for seafood, and hairy crabs remain one of the city's most celebrated seasonal foods. Around this time of year, you'll see street vendors selling buckets of live crabs neatly tied up with string, and traditional restaurants serving up large platters of freshly steamed crabs.

Best paired with a warmed glass of Shaoxing Yellow Wine (add a salted plum to your cup too), hairy crabs are all over Shanghai now, and should be enjoyed at their peak, before mid-December. Don't forget to pull out the meat from those itchy legs — they're arguably the best part!

But where does one begin when it comes to navigating this culinary tradition? We hope this feature answers all your questions and more. First things first...

🦀 Why are they hairy?

Hairy crabs aka Chinese mitten crabs get their name from the thick brown ‘hairs’ — which are actually fibres from their old shells — on their claws. (Think of it as the crabs going through puberty.) Developing hairy claws is a sign that the crab is molting its shell; not only will the protective layer keep its newly exposed shell warm, but the burlier crabs now have more burrowing power — all the better for digging through thick mud to hide from predators and to protect their young.

🦀 What should you order?

Whenever sitting down for a dinner of hairy crabs in Shanghai, make sure to get a 'married couple' of both male and female crabs. Restaurants offering this pairing are more likely to know their stuff / have sourced their crabs at their peak. Check that you have both a male and a female by looking out for the following:

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Female crabs: The prize of the lake! Bigger and more flavourful than male crabs, female crabs have a round underbelly. Open them up and you’ll find rich roe, which contrasts well with their sweet and succulent meat.

Male crabs: Smaller in size and honestly, less flavourful than the females, male crabs can be identified by their triangular underbelly, which contains milt — this sweet and sticky stuff is also delectable, but has a subtler flavour than female roe. Different diners have their personal preferences.

🦀 Where are the best hairy crabs from?

Hairy crabs are unique in the sense that they spend their lifetimes in both fresh water (initially) and the ocean (later). They are partial towards clean environments. As such, crab farmers try to prevent water contamination or runoff pollution in their breeding grounds.

The crustaceans are bred in China's far north and the provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu, which offer the ideal conditions as well as access to their feed: snails, small fish and vegetation. The best hairy crabs, however, come from Yangcheng Lake in Kushan, close to Suzhou, as fertile inland soil joins downward-flowing streams from the mountains and crisscrossing lakes from the Yellow River tributary system.

🦀 What do hairy crabs taste like?

Fans of crustaceans usually can't wait for this time of the year, as hairy crabs are a real delicacy, what with their sweet flesh and marvelous orange roe that's richer and more robust —almost earthy — than what you'll find in other species of crab.

🦀 How do I eat hairy crabs?

Before you get crackin’, take note of the following:

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🦀 Where do I enjoy hairy crabs?

Hairy crabs are served in a myriad of ways: bundled up into xiaolongbao or wontons, in stir-fries, or spun into a cholesterol-rich sauce and ladled over rice or noodles. Here are some of local favourites...

Home-Style Cooking:
Shanghainese at Ease

Crab meat congee (porridge) from Pure Crab Bibimbap

Pure Crab Bibimbap

( 蟹醇香 )

📍 Various locations

A local Shanghainese chain that serves fresh crab meat over with your choice of carbs: steamed rice, noodles or congee. The casual eatery is a great introduction to hairy crabs if you're culinary curious, but don't want to shell out a whole lot on a small amount of meat. Plus, delivery is available via Eleme.


Xin Guang Jiu Jia

( 新光酒家方亮蟹宴 )

📍 Various locations

Another franchise, Xin Guang Jiu Jia has a Cinderella story: what started as a hole in the wall with a one-page menu in 1991 is now a seafood chain specialising in hairy crab dishes. Although there are plenty of à la carte offerings, the best deals are the family-style sets, which include multiple sharing dishes, including their bestsellers, like the scrambled eggs with fried crab meat and crab noodle soup.

Mapu Crab Tofu from Cheng along Hang Crab Palace

Cheng Long Hang Crab Palace

( 新光酒家方亮蟹宴 )

📍 Various locations

A beloved local haunt, this family-style restaurant incorporates hairy crab meat and roe in their traditional fare, turning ordinary dishes into exemplary delicacies; think stir-fried green beans with crab meat or Mapo Tofu slick with thick crab roe.

Fancy Feasts:

Hairy Crabs at Higher Prices

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Wang Bao He

( 王宝和 )

📍 Various locations

Also known as the 'King of Crabs,' Wang Bao He has been lauded as Shanghai's oldest restaurant; according to rumours, the restaurant's original founder was a Shaoxing Yellow Wine merchant from the Qing dynasty.

The 'Drunken Crab' is the house specialty: hairy crabs are soaked in Shaoxing yellow wine for up to two months before being steamed with fresh ginger and soy sauce.

Xifen Xialongbao from Xiezunyuan


( 蟹尊苑 )

📍 889 Julu Road

On the quiet end of Julu Road (intersecting Changping Road) is a restored house that secretly houses a crab shack. Xiezunyuan is divided into two spaces: the first floor is for casual dining and the second floor is for more upscale service with larger tables.

Come here for a true 'local experience,' and enjoy hairy crabs alongside outstanding dishes, like the crab noodles and pure crab xiaolongbao. The seasoned staff know their stuff and, if you're dining downstairs, you can peer through the kitchen window to watch them practicing their craft.

Fu 1039

Fu 1039

( 福1039 )

📍 1039 Yuyuan Road

Located behind a slightly imposing gate on Yuyuan Road, this gorgeous mansion-restaurant delivers a memorable experience. The old residence's original facets have been preserved to retain its Old Shanghai charm, and the food is served in fine dining-esque fashion, but for their hairy crabs, Fu 1039 offers a dim sum-like menu where you can choose a selection of dishes for sharing. We suggest the crab dumplings, Shanghai-style crab noodles, and fresh sesame-coated crab buns — all go perfectly with a pot of ginger tea or, as we mentioned above, huangjiu.