It’s a hot and wet June evening, the night of China’s Dragon Boat Festival. I’m on Shanghai’s Shouning Road looking for one thing — crayfish.
Crayfish is the underdog-turned-champion of Chinese snack cuisine. They first landed in China through Nanjing, brought by Japanese traders and intended as food for bullfrogs. They devastated rice paddies, much to the dismay of farmers, and were generally reviled. Nonetheless, sometime in the ‘90s, the tide changed. Somehow, crayfish became a blockbuster summer dish, a near overnight sensation.
And that wave hasn’t slowed down — the output of China’s “crayfish industry” shot up last year by 83%, reaching 268.5 billion RMB (42 billion USD). Now, the country watches closely as a red cargo train carrying 100,000 frozen crayfish shuttles its way to Moscow, decked out in a big banner with the script “Chinese crayfish rush to the rescue of the World Cup.”
With China’s crayfish fever now at dizzying heights, it’s time to find out what all the fuss is about. Shouning Road is Shanghai’s go-to crayfish destination: one short street, lined on both sides with bright lights, fragrant scents, and loud vendors. Outside of crayfish season it’s a popular late night street food area with just as much hustle and bustle; the late Anthony Bourdain made sure to visit on his first trip to the city:
When Anthony Bourdain Came to China
I’d heard one interesting tidbit that made the whole prospect even more interesting, namely, that you could pay a service charge to have a professional crayfish peeler sit down at your table to de-shell your meal with you. Apparently, most of them were college students, and word on the street is that “prettier” attendants receive higher pay. Novelty, lurid intrigue, sex appeal, and crayfish? This story has everything.
Sure enough, I’m spotted soon after rounding the corner and a street team of two middle-aged women leaps out from the shadows to ask if I’m hungry. They wear plain clothes, and blend right into the scene. One even has a small clutch bag on, and I wonder if the civilian get-up is just to lull passersby into a false sense of security.
Do you have little lobsters? I ask, 小龙虾 xiaolongxia being the putonghua term for the crustacean. Chinese is a refreshingly literal language.
Crayfish on the streets of Shanghai
The woman nods enthusiastically and points to the window beside us, which is quite literally crawling with crayfish. Red, cooked creatures are lined up in rows on the windowsill, looking delicious. Below them on the floor are their not-yet-cooked brothers and sisters, scuttling around in a basin, looking confused.
Fantastic. But do they have pro peelers?
Yes, she tells me. But this service costs extra.
Sounds right to me. It’s a classic business model, just transplanted to crayfish. These overworked, drunken businessmen need to blow off some steam, and I’ll be damned if there’s a way to do that without deeply engrained sexism.
Upstairs at our table, we look over the restaurant’s flavor options. We opt for their house specialty, one jin of crayfish (that’s a little more than twenty individual lads) boiled to perfection in a fresh, fragrant broth with chili and spices. Great choice, we’re told. Our peeler will be with us soon.
I guess now is the time where I hit you with some crayfish facts, lest you think I’m babbling unsubstantiated nonsense about this tiny two-clawed takeover.
First of all, I wasn’t kidding about the 83% industry jump last year. That is, combined output from all things crayfish, according to the Chinese Association of Fisheries. China is the world’s largest producer of crayfish by far, accounting for over 70% of the world’s total production. In 2017 alone, China cranked out over a million tons of crayfish. That’s enough to dole out 800 grams of crayfish to every Chinese citizen (and China has a lot of citizens).
One explanation for the recent spike points to a savvy play by China for marine-agricultural soft power: the World Cup.
Crayfish is a social food. The whole idea is to sit outside for hours on a summer night with your friends, mutilating and consuming unholy mounds of crayfish and washing them down with cold, refreshing beer. Those elements — crayfish, beer, summer, and friends — form the real basis of the phenomenon. Bottom-feeding shellfish alone could not cause such a commotion.
The World Cup crayfish train
The World Cup is a beer-laden social activity in its own right, and China’s culinary brand ambassadors saw the opportunity to strike. It explains the prominently-sloganned crayfish express train headed to Moscow, and it also explains the extra intensity of this year’s crayfish craze, since it cosmically aligns with the once-every-four-years football championship. It’s especially salient considering that, in spite of China’s ongoing all-time crayfish spike, overseas exports have dropped 18%. A big red train on the world stage is China’s way of pitching a flag and claiming the crusted crawler as its own.
Ok, back in the restaurant. We’re sitting at the table waiting to see if these shelled creatures are all they’re, ahem, cracked up to be. Lo and behold, our meal arrives, and with it, our professional sexy crayfish peeler. Get ready for the reveal of the century:
I talk it over with my tablemate. Well, he is a college student…and he is pretty sexy, all things considered.
At this point, the attendant recognizes the popular English word sexy, and giggles shyly from behind his hand. Luckily, the point here is crayfish — not long-legged, scantily-clad peelers, and certainly not the integrity of that headline image up top. Our peeler shows us how to extract the crayfish’s precious meat.
I’ve de-shelled some crayfish in my day, but never before have I approached the task with such precise methodology. Five quick steps, and our perfectly coiffed attendant was handing me a beautiful circle of meat. Snap off the claws (you can eat those later), twist and yank off the head, give the shell a sideways squeeze, twist off the tail, and withdraw your reward.
Suddenly, a table of twenty hungry customers arrives, and our pro peeler disappears into the night.
With an extensive history in China as bullfrog food, why is crayfish only now a World Cup-level phenomenon?
To understand crayfish’s rise to the top, we have to look at the context. A hundred years ago, and 4,900 continuous years before that, China’s day-to-day meals were quick, simple, and practical. Foods like rice, basic soups, and stir-fried vegetables constituted the usual fare on family dinner tables.
But when China entered its period of economic reform, eating habits branched out. Poverty started to decline, and as always, eating became less about survival, and more about pleasure. By the late ’90s, with more disposable income and a newfound thirst for lifestyle, Chinese diners were ready for a new player.
Crayfish happened to be the perfect food to fill that gap: the social aspect of crayfish in China, more than the taste itself, is responsible for the dish’s popularity. It’s labor-intensive, and takes time to eat — each crayfish only yields a small morsel of meat, which means long, drawn-out dinners. The inherent messiness requires plastic dining gloves, so texting through the meal is largely impossible (though surely Shouning Lu will offer pro texters for diners to dictate to soon).
Crayfish is a dish with a seasonal link and an incentive to drink, that necessitates conversation with good company, even in our hyper-connected, social media-driven lives. See also: hairy crab.
A Mid-Autumn Delicacy: How to Cook and Eat Hairy Crab
Throw in the fact that xiaolongxia are well-suited to farm in China’s rice paddies, and you have the recipe for the crayfish wave.
As if to drive the point home, we’re plucked from our table by two real estate contractors visiting town on business — Yunlong from Shenzhen, and Zhangjun from Guangzhou. We politely decline a first invitation, but cave on the second. Several toasts later, I ask them why China has fallen in love with little lobsters.
“Summertime in China, we eat little lobsters, we drink cold beer, and today, we watch football,” Zhangjun told me. “There is nothing better.”
I ask them if they’d had the food as kids.
“As children? Nobody ate crayfish back then. But today, China loves it.”
I also ask if they’ve ever tried American-style crayfish.
“America has crayfish? Really?”
A masterpiece of peeling.
That one hurt me, but I shrug it off. Instead, we drink bottles and bottles of beer at the request of our new friends. We’d planned on eating one bowl of crayfish just for the experience, but we end up plowing through our own bowl, plus the three different flavors at our friends’ table, then fail to stop them from ordering two more plates.
What was intended to be a 9.30pm research dinner instead becomes a 2.30am little lobster free-for-all, complete with new friends, phone-free conversation, and the immoveable certainty of drunkenness. In a moment of foggy clarity, the crayfish phenomenon not only makes sense, but reveals itself to make more sense than perhaps any meal previously devised by man.
Across all these hours, we watch the World Cup. Belgium and Panama are playing, and we can all rest easy knowing that at this moment, 2.5 tons of crayfish are hurtling along international rail lines to congratulate the victors, and console the losers.
Shouning Road photos by Jessica Zhou for RADII.
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