Photos: Brandon McGhee
Born in America, perfected in China, best in summer.
Wander any night market in China right now and you’re going to see piles of crayfish. Because they are farm raised, they are available year-round but peak season for what might be China’s unofficial national dish is… right now. Shanghai loves its crayfish and although the Shouning Lu crayfish street mecca is no more, there are still hundreds of places to eat the little mudbugs in the city. (No, they are not raised in the sewer, as popular rumours on the Chinese internet have claimed.)
But first, a little background.
Originally a native of North America, the freshwater crayfish was brought to China during the Second World War by the Japanese
, who kept them as pets. After the war, the story goes, Japanese soldiers withdrawing from China released their pet crayfish into lakes and rivers near Nanjing, where they flourished and multiplied in the wild. Their popularity with Chinese diners, however, didn’t really take off until the late 80s and early 90s, when they began to appear on late-night dining menus around eastern China.
Today, crayfish aquaculture is a multibillion-dollar industry
in China, where chefs trained in crayfish preparation make significantly more than 4-year college grads
and where they were identified as the most popular dish in the country by Meituan-Dianping in 2017
. There are whole cities whose identity revolves around crayfish
So I set out to sample five of the city’s most popular and unique crayfish restaurants, ordering their specialties and chomping on their crustaceans. In total, I ordered 16kg of crayfish, at anywhere between 130-200rmb per two kilo serving (or about 150 grams of meat). Here’s what I found.
Everywhere in shopping plazas around downtown. I visited this one
though the most popular one
is at People’s Square. The multi-hour wait to be seated is just silly, so that’s not happening.
Couples and small groups, with lots of drinking, lots of buzz, lots of action. Typical Chinese yexiao (late-night dining) zone.
Hong Kui Jia has all the classics, from 13-spice to ma la, but they are especially well known for their offbeat bing zhen and salty egg yolk preparations.
Bing zhen crayfish are boiled with various aromatics, have a sweet and savory sauce poured over them, and then are refrigerated and served cold. Hong Kui Jia dials up the drama by serving them over a bed of dry ice, which causes tremendous clouds of fog to come billowing up around the dish. It also causes high likes on WeChat Moments. But I didn’t like it. True to Shanghai form, the dish was very light and very sweet. The seasonings did succeed in flavoring the crayfish tails but it was one-note. Got stale quickly.
Salted egg yolk crayfish are stir-fried with — yes — salted egg yolk. Salted egg yolk is very delicious, and a great pairing for seafood, as any lover of Southeast Asian cuisine will tell you. Unfortunately, stir-frying crayfish into salted egg yolk results in none of the flavor getting to the meat; it’s all stuck on the outside of the shell. It’s kind of like you’re eating two separate dishes: stir-fried salted egg yolk, and stir-fried crayfish with no seasonings. Bummer.
Hong Kui Jia is probably fine for standard crayfish flavors, but when it comes to some of its most specialty flavors, it was a dud.
Many around town, but I went to this one
behind Crystal Galleria. The original location was on Fuxing Road and Maoming Road, hence the Chinese name, but that shop has now closed (migrated to Shaanxi Nan Lu).
Mostly couples. Not nearly as much of a party atmosphere as Hong Kui Jia. It struck me as mostly tourists or locals who had just finished a day of shopping on Nanjing Xi Lu.
Stir-fried with garlic and niangao; headless crayfish
There must have been at least five entire heads of minced garlic in that oily pot of crayfish, perhaps more. The flavor permeated fantastically into the crayfish meat. It was oily, slightly spicy, very savory, and aggressively garlicky. The niangao in the pot were stunning: ideally chewy, a perfect vehicle for consuming spicy garlic oil sauce. The strips of celtuce in the pot were a nice surprise as well; little bursts of freshness to mix up with the savory. Really delicious. Watch your breath afterward.
The headless crayfish are served ma la, with the heads and intestinal chute removed to make them easier to eat. These were much spicier than expected, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the la overwhelmed the ma.
All around town. I went to this one
Similar to FOMO, with a lot of young couples, but also small groups of locals – Shanghainese spoken all around. Not exactly a party atmosphere on the early side but they are open real late and there is a KTV downstairs. It’s probably more fun after midnight.
Beer-boiled crayfish and headless crayfish (again!)
The beer boiled crayfish was delicious – very savory, slightly spicy, slightly sweet and with a touch of beer flavor. The flavor got deep into the meat of the crayfish, and the heads and juices were delicious to suck out. This was a great dish.
The headless crayfish at Hu Xiao Pang looked almost identical to the ones at FOMO. While the FOMO headless crayfish were more la, Hu Xiao Pang adds a heaping dose of ma. I could barely feel my lips after eating two. The key difference between eating crayfish that are too spicy versus eating ones that are too numbing, however, is that the Sichuan peppercorn does really interesting things to the flavors of other foods, while the heat from chili peppers tends to simply overwhelm the flavors of other foods. For this reason, I preferred the headless crayfish at Hu Xiao Pang to those at FOMO. Overall, boiled in spices and beer is a great way to eat crayfish. Would do again.
A bunch of chain shops in Yangpu District, with a few other locations in outlying parts of Shanghai. I went to this one
“only” 12km from Jing’an Temple.
Distinctly more suburban. My girlfriend said it reminded her of her 3rd-tier Hubei hometown. The crayfish are in a big tank outside the restaurant, weighed in front of you and sent inside for processing. Nearly every table in the restaurant was occupied by chain smokers.
13-spice crayfish is the name of the game here
I really wanted to like this place, given the odyssey to get there but it was underwhelming. The 13-spice crayfish were much sweeter than ones I’ve had before, and I didn’t really get the “spices”. To me, it just tasted like soy sauce, sugar and ginger. Also, points off for crayfish heaped haphazardly onto a large rectangular platter. How am I supposed to Instagram that?
Only this shop
. It’s just next to another yexiao place that also has crayfish, so pay attention to the signage.
Party zone! Mostly medium and large groups. “Décor” is just bottles of beer everywhere.
The big specialty is the crayfish BBQ’ed with cheese.
They were sold out on my visit, unlike the photographer's visit ("not good at all"), so I went for xiang la crayfish (fragrant and spicy) and the salt and pepper variety.
The xiang la crayfish was totally acceptable, but it was missing a little kick. The niangao was almost an afterthought – thrown into the pot a little bit late, it didn’t soak up much flavor.
You can eat salt and pepper crayfish two ways: either painstakingly peeling the shell of each crayfish to reveal the little strip of forlorn, bland crayfish tail meat, or pop the entire flavorful tail in your mouth, shell and all, and crunch away merrily as you develop an ache in your jaw that will certainty persist through the next day. I like eating them. The frying leaves the shells very brittle and the experience is like eating extra-crispy potato chips. Plus the flavor is better. Also order the sweet osmanthus-flavored rice wine. It was the surprise hit of the evening.