Being a Singaporean, from the land of chilli crabs, I think I know a fair bit about these crustaceans.
In Singapore, we like them cooked in a hot and spicy manner, either in chilli sauce or black peppers. If you are a first time visitor to Singapore, it is almost a must to try out chilli or black pepper crabs. We even have a version cooked in butter and oatmeal.
These crabs, which are usually imported from Sri Lanka or Indonesia, have claws much bigger than the hairy crabs we see in Shanghai, and they are usually the best part too. Often, the outer shell is broken with a nutcracker and the crab meat is dipped with chlli sauce for an extraordinary culinary experience. All with bare hands ! Strictly no cutleries! The roe in these crabs usually come thick and hard and though these are still delicious, they are often an after thought after someone have finished off the most delicious part of the crab, the pinchers.
In Shanghai, the definition of good crabs are alot more different. The prized assets in hairy crabs are their roe, not their meat. This is because the hairy crabs are a lot smaller than those found other countries.
An average hairy crab in a reasonable restaurant in Shanghai costs about 200 RMB upwards. The best time to feast on a hairy crab is in autummn where their roes are the richest. Only those from Yang Cheng lake are considered the best and their command a big premium over those sourced from elsewhere. So much so that these crabs from Yang Cheng lake carried an RFID tag to authenticate them from less prized ones.
Autummn being almost over, quickly try one if you are in Shanghai and you have not tried one yet!
The preparation and the culinary experience is very dfferent from the Singapore version. Hairy crabs are just steamed plainly and presented straight to the table from the steamer.
Once this is presented on front of you, you are suppose to pry open the shell (delicately of course), and if you do that right, you should be able to see the roe presented in front of you. Use a small tea spoon, scoop and eat. The roe would probably last 4 scoops of the tea spoon...but it is worth every bit for the 200RMB or so.
So where is a good place to try the hairy crab?
Let me give you a random suggestion:
375 Zhening Road, near Yuyuan Road,
Operating hours : 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.
Tel :+86 21 5239 7878,
(Minimum spend RMB 300 per person)
Oh, by the way, do you know there vending machines in China selling hairy crabs too - guaranteed to alive when dispensed.