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Art in orange: Chef's modern twist on ancient dish

By Xu Junqian | China Daily | Updated: 2016-11-08 07:48

Art in orange: Chef's modern twist on ancient dish

Braised hairy-crab meat in whole orange with Shaoxing wine. [Photo provided to China Daily] 

Over at Yong Yi Ting, chef Lu Yiming is busy creating his own crab feast. The Chinese restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai's Pudong district was among the city's restaurants that were awarded a Michelin star this year. Another of his restaurants, the vegetarian eatery Fu He Hui, also snagged one star from Michelin, making Lu the only chef in China who runs two Michelin-starred restaurants.

Known to many customers and colleagues as Tony Lu, the 34-year-old Shanghai native has been creating crab feasts every autumn since 2000, and they've become a mainstay at Yong Yi Ting since it opened in 2013. His signature dishes are the steamed orange filled with hairy crab cream and yellow rice wine, and the baked crabmeat souffle.

This year, in the wake of the Michelin honor, Lu has added four new crab dishes for the season, upping his total crab offerings to more than 20.

"The kind of crab feast I want to create is one that isn't boring or greasy, even though there is crab in every dish," he says.

For the special set menu he designs for the crab season, he lavishes crabs in 11 out of 12 courses. The exception is the dessert: Osmanthus and ginger ice cream with a ball of sweet potato and sticky rice.

He sautes crabmeat into floss and stuffs it into coin-sized mini burgers as an appetizer; tops rice crisps with fried crab roe; and-as a soothing intermission of the seemingly heavy feast-boils crab-claw meat with white cabbage in a consomme.

"I want the crabs to be in the dish, instead of on the dish," says Lu, who shuns the typical approach he often sees: a stir-fry of crab roe and meat as a top dressing for everything, from boiled asparagus to rice.

His steamed orange filled with hairy-crab cream and yellow rice wine is his pride and joy, and his biggest challenge.

For the ancient dish that is believed to date back to the Song Dynasty (690-1279), the hollowed-out orange not only serves as the bowl for the crab cream, but also lends its aromatic acidity to the crab when they are steamed together, making it less fishy.

"The big challenge for me is that I have no culinary memory of the 800-year-old dish, so I wasn't sure how to re-create it," says Lu.

Does he ever run out of ideas for creating more crab dishes? The chef says inspirations still comes to him "every now and then". Besides the ideas that come from his own kitchen, he often explores other restaurants to find inspiration. At his peak, he says, he managed to visit six restaurants in one day.

Starting his career in the kitchen at the age of 16, Lu has grown up with the radical changes China's food and beverage industry has experienced since the 1990s. Back then, he says, creativity wasn't needed for Chinese chefs and restaurants; you only needed to serve up plenty of shark fin and abalone.

He now runs seven restaurants, four under the brand Fu (including the vegetarian one; the others offer heavier Shanghainese cuisine with different pricing).

"Hairy crabs have not yet earned their full reputation," says Lu. The crab feast is his way to popularize the seasonal crustacean, which he thinks should be as revered as oysters on dining tables around the world. There's a way to go to achieve that, even in China.

"The country is so large that many Chinese have yet to have their first bite," he says.

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