November 15th, 2008

It's not just lobsters, it's crab too.

China's slowest growth in five years is finally making carpet salesman Edwin Hong pay attention to his doctor's advice: Stay off the hairy crabs.

An autumn delicacy in Shanghainese cuisine, the cholesterol-rich crustaceans can wholesale for as much as $80 a kilogram during their October-November season, or a quarter of the average monthly salary of a new university graduate in China's largest city.

Sales of hairy crabs are down by as much as 40 percent midway through the October-November peak season compared with previous years, said Li Bing, who runs a 12-hectare crab farm at Yangcheng Lake, a 90-minute drive from Shanghai. Day trippers come to dine at restaurants that line the lake -- famed for supplying the delicacy to Mao Zedong in 1958.

``Customers who used to come two or three times a week now come once a fortnight,'' said Li, 40, who has put on hold his plans to recruit distributors in other cities. ``I never expected the economy to deteriorate so quickly.''

Li used to send an average of 200 kilograms a day of hairy crabs to hotels and restaurants in Shanghai in past years. This year, he has averaged about half that.
Shanghaiist adds:
On Sunday, we enjoyed our first hairy crab of the season for the ridiculously eye-popping price of RMB15 [$2.20] at the Lisboa Yum Yum Pot Restaurant at Infiniti Plaza (138 Huaihai Zhong Lu), and it tasted not too bad. Under the terms of the promotion (see picture on the right), each diner is limited to one crab to be consumed at the restaurant (ie., you can't get it at that price as a takeaway), and if you want more, you'll have to pay more at RMB28 [$4.10] which is still a very good price. At first we wondered how the hell the restaurant could make a profit at that kind of price but all questions disappeared by the time we left the restaurant, stomachs content. If this was a marketing gimmick, it worked on us alright.

And then yesterday we came across a report that informed us the RMB15 hairy crabs we had the day before was a sign of tough economic times.

Hairy crabs from Yangcheng Lake command a premium and many Shanghai residents typically look forward to making that annual pilgrimage to the lake every autumn. Whereas previously drivers would have problems finding parking lots, this year, we're told the carpark is half-empty.
Of course, now I want crab.