GAO ERQIANG/CHINA DAILY
Zheng Xianchao doesn't look like a kidnapper, but his tied-up "victims" might tell you otherwise.
The 28-year-old Shanghai native arrives at the renowned Wang Bao He restaurant before 7 every morning and spends the next two hours selecting 1,000 hairy crabs from the back of a black van, flanked only by his shifu (master).
The two only pick female crabs that weigh more than 100 grams and males over 150 grams. Anything lighter would be frowned upon by the customers of the time-honored restaurant that specializes in the autumn delicacy.
After transporting the crabs to the 272-year-old restaurant, Zheng spends another three hours tirelessly tying each squirming crustacean with long blades of boiled lemongrass. The entire space, thanks to the scent of the herb, smells more like a spa than a kitchen.
Since the 1930s, the restaurant had been offering customers boiled hairy crabs with its famed yellow wine, which in China is somewhat equivalent to pairing oysters and champagne in France.
However, it was not until the country reopened its doors to the world in the 1980s that hairy crabs, like other luxury items, became widely available again. That's when the restaurant made the hairy crab a regular item on the menu and created 10 dishes around it, soon earning itself the title of "the ancestors of wine and the king of crabs".
"We are the first in China to offer a crab feast," claims chef Wang, who started his apprenticeship at the restaurant in 1981.
Following Wang Bao He's success in incorporating hairy crabs into its menus, similar dining establishments soon spawned. In 1991, Shanghai's Xin Guang restaurant became the first specialized hairy crab establishment in China. A decade later, Fujian native Ke Wei set up Cheng Long Hang, which today is known as the largest hairy crab restaurant chain in the country.