How Louisiana Crayfish Became China’s National Dish

You might know them as crayfish, crawfish, or crawdads. But whatever you call them, these little lobsters have become a sort of national dish in China. Chinese people consume 90% of all the world’s crayfish every year. They’re so big here that 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. That’s why 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 Lay’s potato chips. But China wasn’t always into crayfish. Sidney Cheung, an anthropology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, spent four years studying crayfish culture in China. How did crayfish become so popular? The type of freshwater crayfish that China eats today actually came from Louisiana and the surrounding region. They were then brought over to Japan, where they were raised as pets. The Japanese then brought the crayfish to China during World War II. But Chinese people eventually warmed up to it, especially farmers, who saw it as an inexpensive ingredient. When many of them moved into cities, they brought their crayfish dishes with them. There are dozens of ways to cook crayfish in China. Some prefer braising it, others add garlic, salted egg yolk, and pepper. In some parts of China, you can even order raw crayfish sashimi. But the most classic flavor is a mix of spices and herbs called “13 spices.” First, the crayfish is fried until it’s half-cooked. Then, the 13-spice mix is thrown in. Then, the crayfish is added. And finally, beer is added to get rid of any lingering fishy taste. If you’re eating crayfish for the first time, expect things to get messy. Seasoned eaters pride themselves on deshelling the crayfish quickly and neatly. This is Marina. She’s from Germany and has been living in Shanghai for two years, but this is her first time trying crayfish. Here’s Marina and our chef Zhang Lin racing to see who can deshell the most crayfish in two minutes.

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