A pile of juicy xiaolongxia and an ice-cold beer are the perfect combination for a hot summer evening. Here we look at the history of the little crustaceans in Chinese cuisine, and where to sample these seasonal delights.
Chili crayfish is kind of a love-hate dish. We love it because it has a multi-layered juicy chili taste which will stimulate your taste buds in the hot and humid summer; we love it because it's high in protein and low in fat; we love it because it's the best midnight snack when you're watching a football game or whiling away a summer night with your lover or best friend; we hate it because it's too delicious to resist... oh come on, chili crayfish is the one dish that you must try in summer, like hairy crab in winter.
The best-known species of the crustacean is the Louisiana crayfish - Procambarus clarkii, to those in the know - which is native to the southeastern United States but is now found in many other parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, Europe and other parts of the Americas, sometimes displacing indigenous crayfish.
It is the species you usually see in juicy red piles in Shanghai restaurants and stalls this time of year.
On its home turf, Louisiana people call the state the "world capital of crayfish." In fact, as recently as 1990 Louisiana produced 90 percent of the world's crayfish - also called crawfish, mudbugs or crawdads.
Restaurants in Breaux Bridge in Louisiana were the first to offer crawfish on their menus in the early 1920s and it was here that the famous crawfish etouffee - a stew often served with rice - was created. The crustacean received a further boost to its popularity in 1960, when the Crawfish Festival began.
In New Orleans, many locals like their crayfish boiled. These are often cooked in massive pots full of heavily spiced water, usually with garlic, cayenne, lemons, salt and pepper. Popular items to boil with the crawfish include sausage, potatoes, mushrooms and artichokes.
In Nigeria, crayfish are often smoked; in Mexico the local crayfish, known as acocil, was a very important source of nutrition to the Aztec culture; in Russia and Ukraine, crayfish are a traditional seasonal appetizer used as an accompaniment to beer and spirits; and in Sweden, people are so crayfish crazy they hold three-week festivals in its honor every year.
Despite their popularity here, crayfish - known as xiaolongxia (小龙虾), little dragon shrimp, in Chinese - do not have a long history in Chinese cuisine. It was only in the late 1990s that crayfish fever swept across the Chinese mainland. Crayfish are generally served with mala - hot and numbing - flavors. In Beijing and other northern parts, mala flavored crayfish (麻辣小龙虾) is shortened to maxiao (麻小) and is often enjoyed with beer in a hot mid-summer evening.
Further south, in places such as Anhui and Jiangsu provinces and Shanghai, people prefer the flavor of shisanxiang crayfish (十三香小龙虾), which means the sauce includes 13 different kinds of spices, such as aniseed, cumin, cinnamon and ginger, to enhance a multi-layered flavor and which tastes a little sweeter than maxiao.
Crayfish is high in protein and vitamins such as Vitamin A, E and B12. It is also a good source to obtain folic acid, kalium and zinc and is low in fat and easily to digest. The only downside is that the little lobster is high in cholesterol.
In China, the best time to eat crayfish is from June to August. Restaurants usually wash the crayfish and fry them with seasoning until they're bright red. When diners place an order, chefs boil the crayfish in mala or shishanxiang soup and serve them. They can be eaten with your bare hands, along with vinegar and ginger. Although the meat inside the tail is the real prize, it is quite common - encouraged, in fact - to suck the spiced juices and roe from the head as well.
During the crayfish season, from May to October, many restaurants promote seasoning specialties, especially Sichuan and Hunan restaurants. Some restaurants, often small outlets that only operate during the season, also specialize in various kinds of crayfish.
This week, Shanghai Daily visits five restaurants and samples their various xiaolongxia offerings.
Judian Crayfish (聚点小龙虾)
Cuisine: Shisanxiang crayfish and other mixed-style dishes
Ambience: A medium-sized neighborhood eatery located in Hongqiao, in Changning District. The restaurant can accommodate 70-90 diners, and can get a little crowded and noisy. The eating environment is not fancy but clean. The owner is kind of a "cool-but-kind" person who will introduce their specialties and recommend take-away options. Opening hours of the restaurant are 4pm-4am.
Who to invite: You definitely do not want to make this place your first date choice. You need to eat the crayfish with your bare hands, peel off the shell and maybe spit it out on the table; not pretty. Bring your family or close friends for a casual night is a good choice.
Pros: The shisanxiang crayfish here is said to be the best in Shanghai. Personally, I agree. Unlike other restaurants that serve crayfish that has been pre-cooked, Judian will cook it after the guests' order which make the crayfish tastes very fresh, the meat is tender. Sweet, salt and fragrance are well balanced in the sauce while highlighting the spicy flavor. Really good.
Cons: Always long queues outside, no English menus, not very warm service, very limited car parking spaces.
Recommended: Shisanxiang crayfish, stinky tofu in hot chilli oil (水煮臭豆腐), fish-flavored shredded pork fried with rice cake (鱼香肉丝炒年糕)
Do not order: Everything is great here.
Drinks: Some soft beverages and beers, all stored in a small refrigerator. Just tell the owner what you want.
Cost: Around 100 yuan per person for three to five
Address: 689 Anlong Rd
Guangtou Barbecue Bar (光头烧烤吧)
Cuisine: Crayfish and barbecue
Ambience: Sitting right on the crossroads of Anyuan Road and Changhua Road, the diner is hard to miss. Though serving night-time snack such as spicy crayfish and all kinds of barbecue, it is a better option than the nearby food stalls, offering a roof, strong AC and a seat capacity of about 50. When night falls, more seats and tables are placed outside, if weather permits. A TV set inside the diner broadcast soccer games all night, so sports fans can drop by here and enjoy the Olympics plus crayfish.
Who to invite: Friends and colleagues who want to have a casual gathering or night-time snack. Crayfish lovers who want to satisfy the sudden craving.
Pros: The crayfish is fresh and cheap, with a single price of 25 yuan (US$3.9) per jin (500g). The diner offers a buy-two-get-one-free promotion during the crayfish season. It also has various kinds of barbecue, from steamed buns and sticky rice cake, to vegetables and fruit, to seafood and skewer. Another specialty is the grilled fish.
Cons: Although much more spacious than other snack food eateries, the hygiene is not on par with high-end restaurants. And as it also serves barbecue, the diner looks a bit smoky once you step inside. No English menus, so practice your hanzi or take a Chinese friend.
Recommended: Shisanxiang crayfish, though it's also the only option. Marinated and fried with 13 spices, the crayfish tastes savory and spicy. For the barbecue, try sticky rice cake, eggplant, enoki mushrooms, leeks and stinky tofu. The oysters and scallops are fresh.
Don't order: Grilled fish with douchi (fermented black soybean), which tastes too plain. Try stronger flavors.
Drinks: Beer and soft drinks
Cost: 100 yuan for two, plus drinks
Address: 84 Anyuan Rd
Gui Hua Lou (桂花楼)
Cuisine: Huaiyang cuisine
Ambience: A combination of fancy and classical Chinese. Rectangular red lamps cross the dining hall like a writhing Chinese dragon.
Who to invite: For those who are fussy about their surroundings, have concerns about the food safety of small restaurants and feel it's too messy to eat crayfish served in their shells, but still want to sample the seasonal treat, a five-star hotel is a good option.
Pros: Chef Gao, the executive Chinese chef at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai has launched a food promotion featuring seven crayfish dishes.
"I hope to interpret xiaolongxia in a more diverse way and at the same time bring dinners more convenience eating the food," says Gao Xiaosheng, the Chinese executive chef at Pudong Shangri-La, Shanghai.
Gao says the xiaolongxia served are from Yangcheng Lake in Jiangsu Province, renowned for its hairy crab, and Gaoyou Lake, also in Jiangsu, known for its freshwater produce.
Cons: Five-star hotel prices, plus these dishes are in the seasonal menu and only available this month.
Recommendation: Most of the crayfish dishes are served without shells, except the traditional deep-fried xiaolongxia in spicy sauce (488 yuan/US$75.6 +15%).
The dish has a rich fragrance of chilies, complex flavors combining savory, spicy and a slight herbal taste due to danggui, known as Chinese angelica, which has the effect of neutralizing yin (cold) energy added in the sauce.
Diners with a heavy palate can try deep-fried xiaolongxia with black pepper sauce.
Don't order: Every dish deserves a try.
Drinks: Chilled beer is an ideal pairing for xiaolongxia.
Cost: Around 400 yuan for one
Address: 33 Fucheng Rd
Xiaopang Crayfish (小胖龙虾)
Cuisine: Spicy crayfish and mantis shrimp
Ambience: A neighborhood eatery located beside a downtown street, Xiaopang Crayfish is hard to miss as the owner puts large plates of half-cooked crayfish and other seafood on display in front of the store.
After customers make an order, the chef will immediately throw the half-cooked aquatic produce into a big barrel containing a hot spicy sauce, which the owner claims is an exclusive recipe. You can watch a live show of how the chef turns the pre-prepared ingredients into your ordered delicacy.
Admittedly, the small eatery doesn't offer a luxury fine-dining atmosphere, but its friendly vibe and the warm-hearted owner are ideally suited to the folksy and down-to-earth image of crayfish. But despite the humble fare, according to the owner, some customers drive their Porsches from Pudong to dine here.
Who to invite: Friends for an informal gathering and crayfish lovers wanting to try something new.
Pros: The food is good and fresh.
Cons: To be frank, the place is rather grubby, so if you have strict hygiene criteria, you should avoid Xiaopang. They don't have English menus either.
Recommended: Xiaopang crayfish (小胖龙虾)and hot mantis shrimp (濑尿虾)are favorites with many of the regulars who dine here.
The texture of the meat and robust flavor of the crayfish always make diners eat more than they expect. The owner's special sauce - created from a secret home recipe - also strengthens the taste of the food.
The hot mantis shrimp keeps the freshness of the shrimp while giving it a new taste with a salty but tender feeling on the palate. If you don't want too much spiciness, you can tell the chef to shorten the cooking time in the hot barrel.
Don't order: Hot crab（梭子蟹). Sometimes the crab meat doesn't appear fresh enough and its taste is not in the same league as the other seafood.
Drinks: Some soft beverages and beers, all stored in a small refrigerator. Just tell the owner what you want.
Cost: Around 120 yuan (US$18.9) per person for three to five
Address: 1940 Xinzha Road
How Way Restaurant (厚味香辣馆)
Cuisine: Sichuan cuisine with crayfish as the season's special pick
Ambience: How Way is one of the hottest Sichuan restaurants in town. It is a bustling, casual place with a large dining area and a simple and modern atmosphere. The main color is red - appropriate for the spicy and hot dishes. Who to invite: Friends or family for a casual meal.
Pros: The menu covers all kinds of Sichuan dishes, providing other choices, in addition to crayfish. The hygiene is also much better compared to other restaurants specializing in crayfish.
Cons: There's always a queue, even on weekdays, due to its fame. And the choices of crayfish are limited to three kinds.
Recommended: Spicy crayfish (香辣小龙虾) is the one to order. With the heads removed, the crayfish appears quite clean and easy to eat. It is dry-fried and crispy, with a strong flavored spicy and salty taste. Other typical Sichuan dishes such as fish filets in hot chili oil (水煮鱼) and bobo chicken (钵钵鸡) are also worth trying.
Don't order: The tiaotiao crayfish (跳跳小龙虾) is too oily and the taste is rather bland.
Drinks: Plum juice or other cold drinks
Cost: Around 150 yuan (US$23.6) for two people, plus drinks