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How American crayfish plays a role in Chinese gastronomy

Crayfish is not traditional ingredient in Chinese cooking, so why Chinese people enjoy it so much during the last two decades.

Sidney C. H. Cheung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

It is probably not a coincidence when there were articles about a spicy crayfish dish eaten mainly by Chinese appeared in three major daily in different countries in August 2018. Among these three articles, spicy crayfish was mentioned as “national food,” “ideal for modern communication” and popular spicy food among Chinese outside China given that it is a relatively new food with interesting development in the last two decades in mainland China.

Crayfish is not traditional ingredient in Chinese cooking, so why Chinese people enjoy it so much during the last two decades. There are at least three reasons for us to understand how it gains the popularity. Firstly, it is marketed as “little lobster” as a kind of luxury and classy food for Chinese consumers nowadays. Secondly, it is a seasonal food for young people to enjoy with beer while watching live sport in the summer. And it is commonly accepted as a kind of new regional festive food even though it is different from those in traditional events, usually from late May until early September due to the harvesting period. Thirdly, it is a spicy food which gives people excitement in numbing and chili hot taste originated from Sichuan cuisine. Regarding the culinary characteristics of this spicy crayfish dish, it is related to the rapid growing population of inland migrant workers moving to work on the coastal areas, which can explain how and why crayfish has been cooked with the hot and spicy taste which is unfamiliar in Jiangsu area indeed.

Regarding the development of this dish in the last two decades, Sichuan peppercorn and chili, together with more than ten different kinds of Chinese herbs were used for the “Thirteen Fragrance Crayfish” which is the most renowned style, even though there are various styles of cooking by using garlic, salt and oil, wasabi, etc. Yet, local villagers in Jiangsu area often mentioned that in the past they caught crayfish in the river as a kind of leisure-time activity and ate them in a simple cooking style--mainly boiling. As a commercial item, for a long time no one paid any attention to it them. Then came the emergence of a dish called “Nanjing little lobster,” which appeared in the early 1990s, and its rapid growth in popularity was not limited to Nanjing but extended to large cities such as Shanghai, Wuhan, Beijing, and so on during the last decade. It is difficult to trace the origin of this dish. Obviously, crayfish is not a traditional ingredient for Chinese cooking, and the spicy dish has only become popular since 1990s. The demand of crayfish has increased a lot, and crayfish cultivation in China appeared much later until 1990s when spicy crayfish was promoted as local food in order to support regional economy and agricultural development. Nowadays, if one travels along the Yangtze River, it is no doubt that spicy crayfish would be one of the most popular dishes in Jiangsu, Anhui, Hubei, Sichuan, etc. Even in the most famous eatery-centred area in Beijing, many restaurants are selling spicy crayfish as one of the local delicacy in Chinese gastronomy.

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