By Fiona Sims
I’m on a mission to eat crab. Not just any old crab, but hairy crab. And I just happen to be in Hong Kong during hairy crab season, which runs from October until the end of this month.
The hairy crab has been inspiring devotees for centuries. The shells contain the real treasures – the golden, egg-yolk rich semen of the males, and the bright orange roe of the females, the lot on top of a muddle of intensely flavoured meat.
Eating hairy crabs is a messy business. You must pull off the legs and claws, prize open the shells and suck, scrape and crunch until you have extracted every last delicious morsel.
The only downside is that they are expensive - a 300g crab will cost you $300HKD (about £30), so it’s just as well we have a couple of expert guides to help us choose well.
Randy See owns a handful of well-regarded Hong Kong restaurants, including Bistro du Vin (a little slice of Paris in Hong Kong), and a seafood place, Le Port Parfumé. His fish supplier, Peter Kam, knows everything there is to know about hairy crabs – and a bit more.
pic: Hong Kong restaurateur Randy See
“Hairy crabs are mostly eaten in Hong Kong,” the boys tell us, as they escort us towards Hong Kong’s main fish hub, Aberdeen Market. They offer us a pair of plastic shoes each to wear in place of our own. “You’ll see why in a minute,” grins See.
Aberdeen is a wet market in the truest sense. A tangle of hoses ensures water is constantly sloshing across the cement floor, sometimes three inches deep, keeping the air sweet and the market fresh.
Trousers rolled up to knee height, we pick our way through the rushing water past dozens of fish tanks towards a towering stack of crates packed with tightly bound hairy crabs, destined for top restaurants around the city.
See and Kam select a couple of healthy looking specimens to take back to Kam’s HQ for a mid-morning snack - and our first taste of the hairy-legged crustaceans. But not before a quick visit to Freddy Boy for a bowl of boat noodles – slow-cooked beef brisket served with rice noodles and pak choi in a rich fish stock, made in the galley kitchen of Freddy’s flat-bottomed boat – your Hong Kong fisherman’s breakfast of choice, and yours for $27HKD (£2.70) a bowl.
The boat noodles are good, but the hairy crab is something else, the flavour much richer than any other species of crab, and we suck on the shell until we’ve extracted all the best bits, hungry for more. And we get it, too – at a one Michelin-starred contemporary Cantonese place back in Central.
Duddell’s is an elegant place, offering elegant food, and attracting a younger crowd, who come for the glass-like crunch of its roast suckling pig, its superlative shrimp dumplings and its addictive crispy salt-marinated chicken. But we’re also here for Duddell’s hairy crab noodles, an unctuous, vibrant concoction that induces a rare silence while we mop the plate clean.
I love meat, but I love seafood more, and Hong Kong provided some other memorable fishy highlights. The squid with minced pork and salted egg, followed by the lion fish with lettuce shoots at Kin’s Kitchen are up there in my Top 10. So is the amberjack at Amber, chef Richard Ekkebus’s stunning restaurant at the top of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, served raw over stracciatella, with pickled cherry radish, shaved green strawberries, wild fennel and a fennel seed cracker. But second on that list (after the hairy crab) is our seafood feast in Sai Kung.
pic: Lion fish with lettuce shoots at Min's Kitchen
We have See to thank again for our day trip to Sai Kung. Located in the New Territories about a 45-minute drive from Central, it's known as Hong Kong’s back garden, thanks to its stunning hiking trails and glorious beaches – the Positano of Hong Kong, enthuses See. The seaside town is also famous for its seafood, where fishermen (and women) bob about in their boats by the pier selling their wares.
See selects his favourite fisherwoman, quizzing her about the catch, before buying up a feast that will be cooked up by a local chef. Apparently many restaurants here charge a cooking fee, a little like corkage, if you would rather choose your own fish direct from the fisherman.
Loaf On is the only restaurant in Sai Kung with a Michelin star and See’s favourite spot for our DIY hand picked seafood feast. Pouring from bottles See has plucked from his own cellar (the restaurant offers corkage, too), we start with deep-fried salt and pepper mantis shrimp and steamed prawns with a flinty 2002 Puligny-Montrachet, Les Pucelles, Domaine Leflaive.
We also eat tender abalone, mud crab with ginger and chives, and a kind of cockles served in a five-spice broth, the lot washed down with a 1978 Saint-Julien from Château Gruaud-Larose, which lingers pleasingly on as we return to the main island to catch the plane home. What a meal. What a trip.
For more information go to Discover Hong Kong
It’s difficult. We sympathise. Despite being an entirely different shape and size we have an uncanny ability to turn up in the same outfit (usually black) and order the same dishes. We both wear glasses, swathe ourselves in scarves and fancy Daniel Craig.
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© 2015 Fiona Beckett & Fiona Sims (the2fionas.com), photography © Gary Latham, website by Scend