When I got to China I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to the food. I was fairly certain it WOULDN’T be like western “Chinese food” -sweet and sour chicken balls with that radioactive red sauce, kung pow pork and egg rolls - but I wasn’t exactly sure what authentic Chinese food was. I assumed the centerpiece of most meals would be a big bowl of rice served with heavily sauced proteins and some vegetables nearby.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Recently my brother Lucas and I were in a city called Changsha and met up with some students that we had met on our train into China from Vietnam. Late one night they picked us up from our hostel and when we hopped in a cab one of the girls, Lily, informs us “we’re going for shrimp, do you like shrimp? It’s the most delicious one in Changsha.” I like shrimp, in fact I love shrimp. When I was a kid I could eat a whole poached shrimp ring to myself, and drink the cocktail sauce.
When we arrived at the restaurant it was quickly apparent there was a small miscommunication. Looking around the busy dining room, all the tables were packed with people but there wasn’t a single shrimp in sight. On top of that, the establishment was called Xia Ba Lobster Restaurant, which also happened to be a misnomer because the dish that made this place so famous wasn’t shrimp or lobster. It was crawfish.
We sat at a small table that was covered in a large piece of paper in true seafood-boil fashion and we were handed menus. I don’t know why I even bothered, but I looked down at the unrecognizable symbols on my menu as I do at every meal, only to realize this was going to be another game of Dumpling Roulette. Immediately we surrender the ordering responsibilities to our dining companions, “why don’t you guys just order for us? We’ll eat anything.”
It wasn’t long before a few beers and a steady stream of food started flooding the table. Dried and smoked bean curd (tofu) marinated in garlic, cilantro and chili oil (Lucas’ new favourite bar snack) drops first along with a bowl of whole green soy beans (commonly known as edamame) marinated in black vinegar. Before we could grab our chop sticks and dish out some of the snacks a large plate of whole crawfish stir-fried with about three pounds of garlic and a heaping handful of roasted chili lands on the table with a thud. The aroma was instantly intoxicating. But what hit the table next, contrary to what you may believe, smelt even better. A heaping bowl of sea snails. Like tiny escargots still in their spiral shell, these little flavor bombs were simmered with large chunks of lemongrass and ginger, white cardamom, dried chilies and more garlic.
Doing away with the chopsticks we each get involved with our hands, grabbing, passing, cracking and pulling the tender bits of tail meat from the crawfish and sucking the juice out of the heads the same way you suck the delectably pickled soy beans from their pods. The only exception being the snails, which were gingerly pulled out of their tiny shells with the tip of a toothpick and eaten like a miniature snail kebab.
Soon more food arrives; a small plate of fermented black tofu, affectionately and appropriately named ‘stinky tofu’, makes a dramatic appearance and Lucas and I get a quick lesson on this famous and traditional dish. “This one is so popular in China,” says Lily. “People line up on the street for hours to get it from certain shops.” We were assured the flavor was infinitely better than the smell so we dug in, and we weren’t lead astray. Deep fried until cripsy(ish) then tossed with sautéed garlic, pickled cabbage and chili oil these little purplish black blocks of partially rotten bean curd were surprisingly delicious, we even went back for seconds.
Then followed small bowls of sticky rice cooked with rendered pork fat and drizzled with reduced soy sauce. Another plate of crawfish, tails only this time, simmered in Schezwan peppercorns, fresh and dried chilies, whole roasted garlic cloves and toasted sesame seeds. On top of that we added a few more beers to the mix to round out what was hands down one of the best meals I’ve had in Asia.
A few days later we were in Taizhou on the eastern coast and our host Doreen and her team took us to another crawfish joint. Again allowing them to do all the ordering we end up with a slew of seafood appetizers, the highlight of which were grilled oysters. Plump and juicy grilled right in the shell and topped with, you guessed it, garlic. Chopped scallops, stir fried with noodles and then stuffed back in the shells before being broiled, had a deliciously smoky flavour. Other sides including grilled rice cakes, seasoned tofu skewers, thinly shredded potato sautéed with garlic and green chilies, more steamed soy beans and boiled peanuts lay strewn in every direction. The piece de resistance, however, was a crawfish tower of epic proportions measuring three feet in diameter with 10 lbs of the delicious little bastards stir-fried, boiled, steamed and sautéed in six different flavour combinations.
Move over New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, your time on the throne as the Crawfish Capital has come to an end. Your historically robust and flavourful preparation almost ubiquitously boiled with Cajun spices, new potatoes and corn on the cob, now pales in comparison to the multitude of explosive flavors China is using to elevate this humble crustacean.
“This has been a popular dish in China for a long time, but people outside don’t know,” Doreen told me at dinner that night. “We need people like you to tell others what Chinese food is really like." And my friends, tell you I shall.
I know I can speak on behalf of Lucas when I say; after traveling extensively over the years and spending a large amount of time in Asia, the food in China has easily been some of the best we have ever had. Ever. And it wont be long before we return to explore the other regions of this culinary hot-spot.