In China, one dish in particular is most associated with summer: crayfish.
Like hamburgers and hot dogs in the West, crayfish is best consumed in a convivial setting, with a glass of beer and a group of close friends.
For decades, these little lobsters were regarded as a foreign curiosity, but now, Chinese people consume 90% of the world’s crayfish every year.
Even at American fast-food chains like Taco Bell, KFC, and Pizza Hut, you’ll find crayfish burritos, crayfish tacos, crayfish pizza, and even crayfish-flavored Lay’s potato chips.
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Crayfish restaurants abound in big cities like Shanghai. When the work crowd lets out, restaurants start filling with people seeking pints of beer and plates of crayfish.
“Most people order 1 kilogram, at least,” says Bu Bin, the owner of a crayfish restaurant in Shanghai. “I’ve seen women order 2 kilos per person, and it still wasn’t enough for them. Once, there were four or five of them, and they ordered 20 kilos.”
What makes crayfish so appealing? Some say it’s the plethora of flavors that one can choose from.
One of the most common ways to cook crayfish in China is stir-frying and then seasoning it with powder that comes in flavors as diverse as garlic, salted egg yolk, and mala 麻辣, the characteristic numbing spice of Sichuan Province.
But Bu says the most popular flavor is a mix called “13 spices,” which includes star anise, Chinese cinnamon, bay leaves, angelica, and cardamom, among other ingredients.
After the seasoning is added, beer is usually thrown in to get rid of any lingering fishy taste.
But perhaps the biggest reason for crayfish’s enduring appeal in China is the social element.
Like barbecue, crayfish is meant to be enjoyed with other people, and since eating it requires deshelling the crustaceans by hand, there’s no way for people to check their phones, making the focus of the experience eating and chatting with friends.
How crayfish ended up in China
Though now prevalent across the country, the species of crayfish that’s consumed in China today—the Louisiana crayfish—is not native to its waters.
And for decades, it wasn’t considered a proper ingredient. In the early 1990s, Chinese people only consumed about 6,700 tons of crayfish a year.
But by 2016, that number soared to more than 870,000 tons, according to Sidney Cheung, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese food culture.
Cheung says the Louisiana crayfish crossed the Pacific in the 1930s via the Japanese, who used them as feed for bullfrogs (which, unlike crayfish, were consumed as food).
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In the midst of World War II, the Japanese brought the crayfish to China, where many of them were raised as pets, according to Cheung.
But before the Louisiana crayfish, China already had a native species called Cambaroides dauricus.
These crayfish are smaller, darker, and mostly live in northeastern China. But they were so scarce that almost no one considered them as food.
At first, Chinese people treated the Louisiana crayfish similarly. Few people ate it because of its association with Japan and the war.
But in rural parts of China, crayfish was being used as a cheap food ingredient. And when workers from these poorer parts of the country began moving to cities for jobs, they brought their dishes with them.
That was the beginning of China’s love affair with crayfish.
Today, two provinces—Hubei in central China and Jiangsu on the east coast—are known for their crayfish farms. A major driver of local economies, some villages have even started holding crayfish festivals to attract visitors.
In July, more than 10,000 people got together in Henan Province to eat 1 ton of crayfish arranged in the shape of...a crayfish.