Steamed crab is the essence of Shanghai cuisine. You cannot be a true Shanghainese if you haven't developed a relationship with this dish - how to clean, how to steam, and most importantly, how to extract the deliciously sweet, firmly textured meat. These crabs were feisty, very lively and ferocious as I was scrubbing them. As I picked one up, I tried to get its claws to release its hold on another crab. Without warning, she reached up with her free claw and clamped firmly down on my left index finger, just below the nail. I screamed. It was painful, and bloody, and felt like my nail popped right off - it also became infected.
I was understandably eager to tear into them.
You steam quickly, separating the shell from the body, and removing the organs that you can't eat (lungs, digestive tract, membrane). This is what you want to see - the beautiful orange and yellow brain matter, rich and creamy. This isn't the roe - the eggs collect on the underside, and fishmongers almost never sell crabs that are ready to spawn. You use the shell of the crab as sort of a dish for the dipping sauce, a mixture of rice vinegar, finely chopped ginger, and sugar. Delicious, and eaten steaming hot.
I always loved crab. Usually, parents introduce this dish to their children by picking out all the meat for them - that's no fun. I was taught at an early age to break down the crab myself, and how to extract all the meat. The brain matter was an issue - the palate has to mature to understand how delicious it is. The kind of food where you know you've grown up once you really start enjoying it. In the past, my ancestors who lived in Zhejiang/Jiangsu provinces would eat these with a special set of instruments - small hammers to break the shell, picks to remove the shell and extract the meat . . . we aren't as ceremonial with them now. Thick skin and desensitized fingers are really all you need to gorge on this steaming, succulent treasure.