Monday, November 23, 2015

Across the Nation / Across the World

Shanghai Social Diary

Living in a city the size of Shanghai, with over 20 million inhabitants, requires an occasional escape. One weekend, my hiking group took a trip to Tai Hu Lake for some peace, quiet, and fresh air in the countryside.
by Jeanne Lawrence


Early one autumn Saturday, venture capitalist Jennifer Yan, publisher Andrea Mingfai Chu, and I went on a day trip to the countryside with our hiking group. Our destination was Tai Hu Lake, west of Shanghai, to visit an authentic farming and fishing village.
Tai Hu Lake is third largest freshwater lake in China, has 90 islands, and empties into the Yangtze River.
China is the world’s leading source of wild-caught fish and aquaculture, and Tai Hu Lake is a source for several fish species, including the seasonal delicacy, hairy crab.

After a two-hour drive from Shanghai, we arrived in the lakeside village, where we spotted local farmers selling their harvests and loading up citrus fruits to sell at market, and fishermen selling their freshly caught hairy crabs.
Shanghai natives Jennifer Yan (left), Andrea Mingfai Chu (right), and Jeanne Lawrence, with a local farmer in the citrus grove.

As we explored the town, we watched locals go about their daily routine. We were warmly greeted everywhere we went.

In the village, there was a mixture of traditional ancient Chinese architecture alongside new or recently renovated houses.
Andrea Mingfai Chu. Jennifer Yan.

We were excited to enjoy an authentic farm-to-table country lunch featuring just-picked greens and fresh fish. With a lake full of many species of fish, and cages of ducks and chicken, plus a wide variety of produce, the locals  have an abundance of food sources.

After lunch, our group gathered for a slow-paced, leisurely hike among the farmland and through the hills. The fresh air was a nice contrast to Shanghai’s smog.

We had a chance to observe some of the traditional farming ways. Life here goes on as it has around the world for thousands of years, centered around a marketplace where farmers sell their bounty and live off the land.
Arriving at the top of the main hill, we savored a panoramic view of Lake Tai Hu and the newly built houses below. We were astonished to see how many had solar panels installed on their roofs.

I took off with Andrea Mingfai Chu, author of Shanghai Interiors, to explore the countryside on our own. We discovered a deserted house, most likely the former residence of a wealthy farmer or landlord, now used as storage.

The beauty of the dilapidated building was astounding. The bones of the former house were still visible, and there were beautiful carvings of Chinese motifs. We enjoyed imagining the lives of the former residents.

After our afternoon hikes, we headed back to the little town’s riverfront to buy some fresh hairy crabs to take back to Shanghai for dinner that night. Along with farming, another income source for locals is harvesting seafood—in addition to hairy crab, Tai Hu Lake provides shrimp, whitebait, and whitefish.

The tastiest, biggest, and most desired (and expensive!) hairy crabs come from Yangcheng Lake, slightly east of Tai Hu Lake. We joked that many crabs are probably raised elsewhere and tossed into Yangcheng just long enough to merit their exorbitant price.

Hairy crabs are different than the Dungeness crabs with which Americans are familiar. They’re smaller, fist-sized grey-green river crabs with bristled legs, and they are more difficult to eat. Although the official season opens in late September, aficionados wait until mid-October to enjoy them. By then, the crabs have fattened up for the cold and are producing the most roe.

You don’t want to miss hairy crab, one of Shanghai’s signature dishes. In season, lots of restaurants offer specialties on their menus. Sampling the crab is a learning experience, so it’s best to take along a native or tour guide who can show you how it’s done, much as a friend from Maine would teach you how to eat lobster. Being messy is unavoidable—and part of the fun!
We had to decide whether to order a female or male crab. Some consider the real delicacy to be the female’s roe, or eggs, which are rich and creamy.
Other diners prefer male crabs because they’re bigger and have more meat, though it’s not as sweet as the females’.
The fishermen worked as a team to get the hairy crabs ready for customers.
The hairy crabs are tied up with raffia to keep their claws close to the body and unable to pinch.
The fishermen showed us how to crack, break open, and suck out the flavorful meat from a whole steamed hairy crab. It’s a lot of work for a small quantity of meat, but it’s a fun experience with friends.
Our group happily took home a bag full of hairy crabs to enjoy when we returned to Shanghai. It’s said that a real Shanghainese will take an hour to devour each crab, carefully picking it apart to get at every bit of goodness.
We left the countryside in late afternoon, with time enough to cook up all those crabs for dinner back in the city.
Photographs by Jeanne Lawrence.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.