Abstract: First introduced into China by the Japanese in the 1930s, crayfish became popular in the Nanjing area in the early 1990s as part of a dish prepared with Sichuan pepper and spices. China is now the top consumer and producer of crayfish, which has gained acclaim as a luxury item prepared in a variety of ways and enjoyed all across the country. The rise of what had once been peasant fare reflects other changes in China due to agricultural enterprises at that time.

Citation: Cheung (2021). Berkshire Encyclopedia of Chinese Cuisines. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing Group.

DOI: 10.47462/1497604295

Keywords: 

Any figures or illustrations or illustrations included here are not finalized for publication. Advance publication date as per post date. Copyright Berkshire Publishing Group.

Back to list of Advance Articles

Crayfish

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

First introduced into China by the Japanese in the 1930s, crayfish became popular in the Nanjing area in the early 1990s as part of a dish prepared with Sichuan pepper and spices. China is now the top consumer and producer of crayfish, which has gained acclaim as a luxury item prepared in a variety of ways and enjoyed all across the country. The rise of what had once been peasant fare reflects other changes in China due to agricultural enterprises at that time.

Crayfish, also called crawfish (words derived from the old French écrevisse), are freshwater crustaceans resembling marine lobster, although smaller in size. Crayfish farming has existed in France for the Parisian market since 1880; in the United States, massive cultivation began in the 1960s (LaCaze 1966, 1970). Unlike lobsters, crayfish live in freshwater, yet because of their appearance, they have been marketed particularly in mainland China as “little lobsters” (xiǎo lóngxiā 小龍蝦) because of the upscale image of lobster there.

In Japan, a crayfish bisque was first prepared by Chef Akiyama Tokuzo in 1916 for more than two-thousand diplomatic guests coming to Japan from various countries for the Taisho Emperor’s coronation ceremony. Chef Akiyama was appointed the master chef of the imperial court in the same year, shortly after he came back from France. During those years, French cooking was commonly used for imperial and diplomatic events, and the crayfish bisque was prepared based on Akiyama’s culinary experience in France, with local crayfish found in Hokkaido. In the 1920s, the American crayfish was brought to Japan.

The Procambarus clarkia (kè shìyuán áoxiā 克氏原螯蝦) species of crayfish was brought to the Jiangsu area by the Japanese in the 1930s, although the reason is still unclear. The local Jiangsu people tended to believe that there was a Japanese conspiracy to use the crayfish to destroy their rice paddies, since crayfish like to eat the roots of crops. More importantly, they dig holes which drain water away from the rice paddies. It’s no surprise then that the local people did not welcome the crayfish; and since the crustacean can survive in dirty water, it was not considered edible by most people.

Over the years, while villagers in the Jiangsu area might catch crayfish in the river as a kind of leisure activity, and boil them as a snack, they were ignored as a commercial enterprise. Then came the emergence of a dish called “Nanjing little lobster,” which appeared in the early 1990s. Its rapid growth in popularity was not limited to Nanjing, but extended to large cities such as Shanghai, Wuhan, and Beijing. It is difficult to trace the origin of this dish, stir-fried with Sichuan pepper and chili together with more than ten different kinds of herbs and spices, together known as the thirteen spices or “thirteen fragrances” (shísān xiāng 十三香). The culinary characteristics of this hot and spicy dish may be related to the emergence of a dish that started out as food for the working class in Nanjing. The movement of inland migrant workers and traders to and from the coastal areas may explain how and why crayfish has been cooked with the hot and spicy taste that is unfamiliar in the Jiangsu area. Since then, other methods of preparation have gained favor as well, using garlic, salt, oil, or wasabi.

In line with this food craze, crayfish cultivation in China began in the 1990s, when spicy crayfish was promoted as a “local food” in order to support regional economies and agricultural development. Nowadays, spicy crayfish is one of the most popular dishes in cities along the Yangzi (Chang) River and in Jiangsu, Anhui, Hubei, Sichuan, etc. Even to the north in Beijing, many restaurants feature spicy crayfish as one of their “local delicacies.”

What happened in Nanjing demonstrates not only the rising price of crayfish marketed as “little lobster,” but also the upscale movement of crayfish from peasant’s fare of unknown origin to a luxurious gourmet food that represents new Nanjing foodways. This surprising upward mobility is a timely example of agricultural changes brought about by China’s emerging rural enterprises. While only 6,700 tons of crayfish were harvested in the early 1990s, it was recorded that 6.55 million tons were harvested in 1995, increasing to around 10 million tons in 1999. If we only consider the production in the Jiangsu area, the amount of crayfish harvested in 1995 was 3 million tons, increasing to 6 million tons in 1999 (Xia 2007, 3).

One setback to the popularity of “little lobsters” among Chinese consumers occurred in late 2010, when twenty-three people fell sick after eating crayfish in restaurants located in Nanking. At first accounts differed, but the cause turned out to be Haff disease, which is the development of rhabdomyolysis (swelling and breakdown of skeletal muscle, with a risk of acute kidney failure) within 24 hours of ingesting seafood. After the incident, many crayfish eateries either closed down or did extremely poorly. In order to attract customers, the Xuyi prefectural government claimed that if anyone got sick after eating Xuyi crayfish in the registered eateries, they would receive a compensation of RMB 500,000–1,000,000.

While in the following years there were no major incidents regarding the safety of eating crayfish, there were some alerts circulated in various media outlets about the environmental contamination of crayfish farming. The popularity of spicy crayfish has been increasing during the last several years, and a few major crayfish festivals were organized for boosting the local economy in rural areas along the Yangzi River Delta areas. In 2015, it was widely reported that the total consumption of crayfish in China was around 600,000 tons, with 200,000 tons consumed in Jiangsu, a region which only produced 100,000 tons. The market for spicy crayfish is still expanding, with online purchase and door-to-door delivery giving the market another big push in recent times.

Further Reading 

  • Cheung, Sidney C. H. (2015a). From Cajun crayfish to spicy little lobster: A tale of local culinary politics in a third-tier city in China. In J. Farrer (Ed.), Globalization and Asian cuisines: Transnational networks and contact zones (pp. 209–228). New York: Palgrave MacMillan Press.
  • Cheung, Sidney C. H. (2015b). The social life of American crayfish in Asia. In Kwang Ok Kim (Ed.), Re-orienting cuisine: East Asian foodways in the twenty-first century (pp. 221–237). New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Cheung, Sidney C. H. (2017). New Orleans, new territories. In Chu Yiu-Wai (Ed.) Hong Kong culture and society in the new millennium: Hong Kong as method (pp. 79–90). Singapore: Springer Verlag.
  • Dunlop, Fuchsia. (2008). Shark’s fin and Sichuan pepper: A sweet-sour memoir of eating in China. New York: W.W. Norton.
  • Huner, Jay V. (1992, March–April). Chinese crawfish and the Louisiana crawfish industry. Aquaculture Magazine, 6–13.
  • LaCaze, Cecil. (1966). More about crawfish. Louisiana Conservation-ist, 18(5/6), 2–7.
  • LaCaze, Cecil. (1970). Crawfish farming. Fisheries Bulletin 7. New Orleans, LA: Department of Conservation.
  • Pitte, Jean-Robert. (2002). French gastronomy: The history and geography of a passion (Jody Gladding, Trans.) New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Xia, Aijun. (2007). Little lobster cultivation technique. Beijing: China Agriculture University Press.
  • Chen, Xiaoxuan, & Edgerton, Brett F. (2001, November–December). Freshwater crayfish culture in China. Aquaculture Magazine, 41–44.
close

GET NEWS ABOUT NEW BOOKS & SPECIAL OFFERS

SUBSCRIBE TO OUR OCCASIONAL EMAILS

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.