Five hours from Shanghai lies the domain of the Crayfish God, some of China's best crayfish, and a little dash of controversy.
I saw the Crayfish God before he saw me. He was dressed in a red chef’s jacket and white toque, women on either side of him, and in his right hand, he held high a golden trophy. I was a hundred kilometers north of Nanjing and after I saw him once, I couldn’t stop seeing him. Crayfish God Yu’s Crayfish Restaurant, the billboards exclaimed in big red characters. Crayfish God Yu’s Crayfish Restaurant, the signs on the tollbooth said. Crayfish God Yu’s Crayfish Restaurant, the signboard in town shouted, a giant crayfish affixed to it.
The town was named Xuyi, five hours from Shanghai, but it might easily be called heaven for anyone who loves crayfish, and China certainly does. The country eats almost two billion crayfish a year, or nearly 900,000 tons. The crayfish business has turned Xuyi’s fortunes around, and the once-poor county is now relatively affluent for this part of Jiangsu province, and more than 20 Xuyi residents become millionaires from the crayfish industry every year, according to government officials.
I had come to Xuyi to meet the Crayfish God™, to take a vocational training class on how to cook crayfish, and, of course, to eat.
Yu Xinkai is that God. A soft-spoken, muscular man, Yu left the personal training industry to become CEO and executive chef of the family business, Crayfish God Yu’s Crayfish Restaurant, more than a decade ago. In 2014, his paocai
flavored crayfish dish was deemed so heavenly by the judges of the Xuyi International Crayfish Competition that he was awarded not just the gold medal but also the lofty title. The company has hundreds of franchises across the region, and supplies them with more than a million crayfish every day during the height of the summer season.
After a chat in his office, we met Yu in the kitchen of his flagship restaurant, his signature crayfish statues standing as straight and as tall as soldiers outside. In the interim, he had pulled a Superman, changing from a regular guy with a nice part in his hair to his superhero chef persona, commanding the prime wok position. Around him, crayfish were everywhere. Chefs stewed them 50 pounds at a time in giant woks, scooped them live out of massive plastic baskets, and sent them out of the kitchen plate after plate after plate. The aroma of chopped garlic floated through the hot air.
Apart from the crayfish madness in general – the “Red Storm”, as government officials call it — Xuyi is famous in particular for inventing the Thirteen Fragrance flavor (though by whom is a subject of controversy we’ll get to later) and Yu had the spices and traditional Chinese medicine ingredients for the dish laid out in plates in front of him: star anise, Sichuan peppercorns, angelica root, ginseng, clove and a spread of roots with hard-to-translate names.
He began by heating a liter of oil in a wok until it bubbled and nearly smoked and then an assistant passed him a basket of live crayfish. Yu flung them into the hot oil —no mercy — where they writhed for a second and then froze in their positions, their shells turning from black to red. The gruesome part out of the way, Yu poured off the excess oil, added the dried seasonings and water and braised the small crustaceans for a few minutes, before adding chopped green pepper and garlic and spooning them into a plate.
The Crayfish God paused for photos and went back to the wok, repeating the oil and live crayfish step but this time adding a panoply of pickled vegetables, and a proprietary blend of pickling juice. “It’s standardized,” he proudly told us, the dream of every franchise CEO. “Soon, you’ll be able to just buy the mix online and make this at home.” This was the paocai
crayfish, the dish that elevated him from man to god, and when, after moving from the kitchen into the dining room, it finally arrived on our table, it was indeed heavenly. Sour like suancai yu
, garlicky but not overwhelming, the broth was so good that after I ate the 30 or so crayfish bathed in it, and ate the broth with a spoon, I ordered a simple flatbread to soak up leftovers. The crayfish themselves were meaty and sweet, and the heads full of yellow roe. Here, indeed, was a divine recipe, a reason for the long trip from Shanghai and some justification for Yu’s claim to godliness.
The restaurant buzzed around me. By now, Yu was in the dining room as well, shoving the eighth and final piece of a giant round puzzle into place. Other customers gathered around with their phones out, taking pictures of the more than 200 crayfish in eight different flavors, served in a circular steel dish so big and heavy it is lashed to a pole with silk sashes and carried on the shoulders of two servers, themselves dressed in silk robes and hats shaped like crayfish heads. When all the crayfish were in place and Yu was happy with the display, a third server set off, hitting a gong and chanting out crayfish-related verse. The feast moved upstairs, and when it finally arrived at the table of men celebrating one thing or another, or perhaps just a Saturday night in the Crayfish Capital of China, they sat back and watched the hubbub approach their table, smoking and satisfied.
The next morning I had time to kill before going to see the Crayfish God’s crayfish farms and so, on a friend’s recommendation, I went to Hong Ye Crayfish Restaurant for breakfast. Hongye started in the 90s after the owners, Ye Anguo and his wife Zhang Yulan, left the Xuyi Foodstuff Company, to try their hand at private business.
It was 9am. An angry looking crayfish statue guarded the entrance, and the 24-hour restaurant was empty save for a couple of staff. The walls were plastered with the shiny bronze plaques of competitions and pictures of celebrities, including Zhang Yulan, who had herself become something of a crayfish ambassador, appearing on famous TV shows and traveling overseas to promote the freshwater crustacean. So, after confirming that yes, they were indeed open 24 hours, and yes, I could order three pounds of crayfish for breakfast, I was surprised to see Zhang herself emerge to take my order and then disappear into the kitchen for half an hour to prepare it.
Zhang is, according to Zhang, the creator of the Thirteen Fragrance flavor. This is a hotly debated topic in Xuyi. While everyone agrees that Thirteen Fragrance originated here, because of the favorable climate for growing all of the herbs used in Chinese medicine, which form the basis for the dish, no one agrees on who the first person to turn it into a specific dish was. Yu says the style goes back centuries. A wholesaler I talked to pointed to his neighbor at the crayfish market, a spice dealer.
Zhang points to herself.
Her story is simple. She began by braising crayfish in the 1990s, and slowly began adding more and more dried seasonings. She didn’t consider it a new flavor, but her customers commented on how fragrant her crayfish were, and gave them the Thirteen Fragrance name.
More interesting, perhaps, is the discussion that followed, when Zhang, a grandmother, sat down at my table and, without any prompting, began talking about corruption and kickbacks in the crayfish restaurant world. Apparently crustaceans were a favorite of officials looking to cash in on bloated expense budgets, and Zhang was almost proud of how involved she was in this world before the current crack-down. “No one had more government officials at their restaurant than me,” she stated matter-of-factly, as I twisted the bodies and peeled the shells off of crayfish after crayfish.
My next stop was the farm. Hongze Lake dominates this part of Jiangsu, and it’s this natural water feature, along with a strong development push from the local government, that have turned this town into a center of the country’s crayfish trade.
The fringes of the lake are lined with crayfish farms, milky green water sitting in manmade ponds, and it was at one of these ponds that I met the manager from Yu’s crayfish empire. The sun was blazing and I reluctantly traded my air-conditioned rental car for a tiny metal skiff, just big enough to hold the five of us — the manager, two crayfish farmers, my assistant and me — as we floated out to the traps, hung on stakes driven into the bottom of the pond. Three of us stood and the boat rocked from side to side as one of the farmers pulled up the long tube net used to catch the crayfish, and slowly emptied the crustaceans into a plastic tray. The manager picked a couple up, showed us the difference between the males and the females (the width of their tails) and how young crayfish are green and easier to peel, but lack the roe of the older red crayfish that real connoisseurs prefer.
This was it, the alpha to the omega of the feast I had seen the night before, the raw material that fuels Yu’s business. Back on land with a few kilos of snapping, active crayfish, the manager told me this was just one pond of many, big enough to produce 30,000 to 40,000 crayfish a year — less than 5% of what Yu would need for that day’s orders. From here, they would go through a comprehensive sorting, cleaning and weighing process back at the Crayfish God’s facility, and out to the rest of China.
My final appointment was the vocational school, and it was less than divine. Billed as a training center, in reality, the storefront on the edge of an already-small town was grimy and grim, part storehouse and, up on the floor, part basic kitchen.
After a brief argument about the price — 2,000 rmb to learn one flavor, or 3,000 rmb to learn two — and an uncomfortable silence and pause while waiting for the Alipay transfer to clear, we headed up two flights of stairs to the “kitchen”: three wok burners, a single work table, a small sink and no sign that the place had been cleaned in recent memory. Half a dozen green beer bottles sat on the table.
Yang Haidong, 36, flew through the steps of making a completely ordinary and unspectacular version of Thirteen Fragrance crayfish, frying the crayfish alive in oil and then shouting out the ratios of the seasonings he was adding: Sichuan peppercorn, one! Doubanjiang, one! Chili Flakes, one! A cloud of spice permeated the room and everyone started coughing.
Yang continued shouting out ratios. Salt, one! MSG, one! Chicken bouillon, one! Sugar, two! He paused for dramatic effect, one more ingredient to go.
Thirteen Fragrance powder, FOUR!
He grabbed one of the beer bottles by the neck and added a ladleful to the bubbling wok, and then five times as much water. In his no-nonsense way, he told us that the crayfish now needed to cook for exactly six minutes, no more, no less, and then sit in the hot broth, with no flame, for another ten minutes, absorbing the flavor.
“Do you want to do it?” he asked me. I declined. Something about throwing live animals in oil put me off, and, frankly, there was nothing impressive about the technique, about as exciting to a chef as frying chicken wings — a fun and spicy snack food to eat with friends and beer, but not anything to hold a chef’s interest.
Yang packed up the crayfish he had cooked in a plastic bag, and in less than 20 minutes, I was out of the building, ushered out with the assurance that I could contact him anytime if I had questions about setting up my restaurant, that I could buy their spice powders to stock my kitchen, and that they were really sorry about the price, but what could they do?, and then I was left, holding perhaps the most expensive bag of crayfish to be had in Xuyi, 1,500 rmb for the pound.
A young couple from Guizhou sat in the chairs on the ground floor waiting their turn. The man wanted to open a restaurant. Yang would sell him the recipe and a dash through the process. I hoped the next guy would feel better about the transaction than me.
Sensing my disappointment, Yang’s partner offered to show me the town’s crayfish market. I immediately agreed. He had claimed that a third of the people in Xuyi work in the crayfish industry, and it seemed sensible to expect a bustling market, alive with snapping crayfish and traders looking to make a buck. Instead, the market turned out to be a dozen forlorn stalls along a dirty alley, with barely a crayfish to be seen.
“It’s too hot today,” the partner, a crayfish wholesaler, told me. “Everyone is keeping their crayfish in the shade.” He tried to brighten the mood by rolling up the shutters on his tiny storefront and pulling the tarp off his stacks of crayfish. He picked a few up, letting them flex their claws, and told me he was waiting for the rest of the market to sell out for the day, so he could raise his prices.
I ended the trip in retreat, waving off the wholesaler’s attempts to cook me yet more crayfish. I was just fine, I told him — I had already eaten breakfast. He insisted. I demurred. I had been to the see the God, and, I had been to the see the kitchen, and I had been to take the “class” and I had an expensive pound of crayfish in the car. I was just fine, thanks.