Hungry Lawyer: Hairy crab season is here; try them at Tien Heung Lau for an essential experience… at a price

The weather has begun to cool in Hong Kong and that means hairy crab season is here again. These crabs, known more formally as “Chinese mitten crabs”, are notable for the hair-like bristles on their fore-claws and the rich roe that lies within their palm sized shells.

Hairy crabs are a delicacy native to the Chinese coastal region from Hong Kong up to the Korean peninsula. The crabs are born in brackish salt water, swim upstream to fresh water rivers and lakes and return to the sea once again towards the end of their seven year lifespan heavy with eggs for a once in a lifetime chance at reproduction. It is this singular sexual cycle that produces the rich roe that is the hallmark of the hairy crab dining experience.

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The best hairy crabs are traditionally thought to be those raised in Yangcheng Lake in the Shanghai region close to the city of Suzhou and not so far from the scenic lake city of Hangzhou. Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs are said to be so fresh tasting that no condiments are required to enjoy the decadent roe and sweet meat. This branding has resulted in a huge market for fake Yangcheng Lake hairy crabs so that even crabs consumed at lakeside restaurants are typically not from the lake or may have only “bathed” in it for a brief spell following their transport from other regional bodies of water.

In Hong Kong, hairy crab season is notable for street-side vendors selling bound crabs for consumption at home and for an explosion of expensive hairy crab sets at local Shanghainese and other restaurants. This year, I wanted to find somewhere to experience hairy crabs in their unadulterated state, without the requirement of nine different courses and with a high degree of reliability that the crustaceans actually come from Yangcheng Lake itself.

The unpretentious Tien Heung Lau, which has been serving authentic Hangzhou cuisine for over 40 years.

This quest took me to a very old restaurant in Tsim Sha Tsui called Tien Heung Lau which has been serving authentic Hangzhou cuisine for more than 40 years on Austin Avenue. Tien Heung Lau looks like it hasn’t been renovated for that entire period and maintains an air of old Hong Kong, unpretentious but for the price. For this meal, my guest and I chose two hairy crabs each (HKD800 per crab), noodles with hairy crab meat and roe (HKD428), a cold appetizer of preserved duck called Hong Chow Soy Duck (HKD96 for a small portion) and an order of Dau Mieu (green pea shoots) stir fried with oil (HKD188), itself a seasonal vegetable available only as the cooler season approaches.

Staff brought the bound crabs to the table for inspection, and to show they were still live.

The staff carefully selected four crabs from a dedicated hairy crab refrigerator, bringing them to the table still bound and demonstrating their continued vigour.

The cold preserved duck.

While the crabs met their fate in the kitchen, we enjoyed the salty preserved duck traditionally prepared in Hangzhou style, the duck meat dense from the cold and salty with the soy infused during preservation. The noodles arrived next also salty, perhaps too much so, though amply covered with a thick sauce of hairy crab roe and meat.

The cooked crabs arrived fresh from the kitchen, bright red and still steaming.

Finally, the crabs arrived bright red and still steaming. The staff carefully cracked them open, reminding us to eat the hot orange roe first before it cooled.

The hairy crab’s delicious orange roe.

We eagerly obliged and truly no condiment was necessary for either the ample, delectable roe or the sweet meat of the body. While we ate, the staff carefully prepared the legs and claws to reveal the meat inside for easy consumption. For the legs, I did on occasion give into the temptation to dip a leg or two into the typical vinegar sauce that is served with hairy crabs but only for a very light dab, no more than you would apply soy sauce to the finest sushi.

For some, hairy crabs will never be worth the effort. I think they are missing out and at a place like Tien Heung Lau the effort is reduced, the taste is exquisite and only the price should be a deterrent for all but the most special occasion.

When we finished the crabs, we were greeted with a finger bowl for cleansing our hands. Not content for the bowl of water to be infused with fresh lemon juice, at Tien Heung Lau, the finger cleansing agent is those pea shoot leaves that are not deemed sufficiently green and tasty for guest consumption. Afterwards, we did enjoy our dish of those leaves approved for consumption and they were certainly very good, though possibly a bit overpriced for a simple plate of stir fried greens.

Ga fan jau, Tien Heung Lau’s specialty aged wine.

Nonetheless, Tien Heung Lau’s other specialty made the price – and everything else – go down without pain. For this restaurant also ages their own Chinese wine called Ga Fan Jau (HKD428 for a pitcher) for 28 years mixing the aged wine and its subtle flavour with new wine for a sufficient kick. The smooth and intoxicating result certainly helps to digest both the rich roe and the rich bill alike.

Tien Heung Lau, 18C Austin Avenue, Tsim Sha Tsui (Google Maps).

About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.

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