Crayfish doesn’t travel far. To grab the best taste of this armored, clawed and paper-tiger-indeed creature in season, you’d better make yourself move quickly to them. They are well worth a trip once you have tasted the differences between freshly cooked live crayfish and canned one in brine.
There are some places that hold annual crayfish festivals, i.e. Sweden and America. Recent years, IKEA also holds eat-as-much-as-you-can crayfish event in some of their local stores.
For me, I made my trip to Xuyi 盱眙 in China. When I visited the local market, there were piles of piles crayfishes clawing crawfishes elbowing crawdads. They were priced according to their sizes and growing environments although the majority were farmed in the nearby lake. One thing that makes crayfish in this area famous is the clear, running and unpolluted water in the lake which is really a treasure to the locals.
This time we did not do the cooking, but we still can share you with our enjoyment and tips which I learnt from locals.
1. Ice-cooled original crayfish 原味小龙虾
These are the finest of the premier quality crayfishes because they came from the upstream of lake water sources. The purity of the water and the abounded minerals naturally enrich the sweetness of the crayfish meat. Only male crayfish with the hardest shell is chosen for this dish as female one has exhausted her own body nutrition for reproduction in this season. Just boil those crayfishes in lightly salted water, ice cool them immediately and serve them with soy sauce. The freshness and sweetness of the chewy meat with a hint of salty from soy sauce brings you its uttermost taste, fishy, meaty and umami.
- Salted water boiled crayfish 盐水小龙虾
It is the easiest way to cook crayfish. Boil a big pot of water and add sliced gingers, spring onions and good amount of salt.
Submerge the crayfish into the brine bring it back to boil and cook for no more than 5 minutes.
The crayfish will float to the surface and turn into bright red. Take them out and serve them hot. The best way of enjoy this dish is to having a glass of Chinese White Liquor (Baijiu，白酒) while eating crayfish. The perfect combination will keep your hands and mouth busy until you are really full.
- Crayfish with garlic sauce 蒜烧小龙虾
Quick boil the crayfish as above for only 2-3 minutes.
Heat a large sauce pot on medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons cooking oil and 20 whole garlic cloves. Cooke the garlic till them turns into golden brown.
Add ginger, green, red chill, salt and water brings them to boil for 25 minutes and remove the pot from heat.
Add the crayfish to the hot brine in the pot with a good splash of Shaoxing Rice Wine at end.
Soak the crayfish in the brine for overnight in fridge and let the seasoning seep around shell into the meat.
Serve the crayfish next day. The garlic sauce infused meat is full of flavours, juices and tender.
- Crayfish cooked with Thirteen-spice powder 十三香小龙虾
The thirteen-spice十三香, like five-spice, is a comprehensive seasoning powder. It made from 13 different scented traditional Chinese herbals and spices. It includes the powder of star anise, fennel, galangal, sand ginger, resurrection lily rhizome, white pepper, cumin, amomum villosum, Sichuan pepper, angelica dahurica, dried orange peel, Fructus Tsaoko, elecampane, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. The above spices are guesswork of general public only. The family that makes this powder still keeps the ingredients and blending formula as a secret and dominates the top position unchallenged for generations.
Braise a big pot of pork joint with the thirteen-spice powder when the pork is nearly ready, put in the crayfish simmer them for 5 minutes. This great special seasoned dish is meaty and fishy. Mixing the sauce with rice gives you an extra bonus of the dish.
- Red cooking crayfish 红烧小龙虾
This is a version which combines the techniques in No.3 and 4 above. The crayfish is simmered in a nearly boiling red cooking sauce for about 10-20 minutes on a very low heat. It makes the crayfish so tasty even the meat in claws.
- Sichuan Mala crayfish 麻辣小龙虾，麻小
This is the highest-order-rate crayfish dish nation-wide in China. The dish earned its own official abbreviation name as ‘Maxiao’ 麻小.
The ingredients are large amount of dry Sichuan lantern chilli, Sichuan peppercorn and garlic. However, to cook the dish to perfection demands a couple of requirements: Firstly, a large wok that 2-kilogram crayfish only takes 2/3 volume of the wok; Secondly, high temperature gas flames from a traditional Chinese gas cooker; Thirdly, wok-tossing skill and strength in technique term to handle the weight of wok. To cook this dish at home, it seems to me as a mission impossible.
The dish is sizzling hot both in temperature and taste. The chillies hit your tongue with extremely ‘Mala’ (spicy and numbing) and the meat is so tender and juicy. Thanks for the speedy and high heat cooking which instantly locks all the deliciousness inside the shell.
There are so many versions to cook crayfish in China which I can’t list them all here. I was always wondering why such small amount of meat hidden under a shell can make people so enthusiastically to hold a festival for it. But I noticed that there was no such a scene that a single person sitting alone with a big bowl of crayfish. People come in groups for eating, chatting and sharing. It seems to me that make the perfect sense that food is for sharing and sharing makes a great food. I hope see you on my next crayfish trip.
- Add 2 Tablespoons salt to a big pot of water and keep the crayfish in the water for at least half a day before cooking. Change the water at every 2 hours. The salty water helps to clean gill and makes the crayfish breathe out dirt so they will not taste muddy.
- Do not cook dead crayfish; remove out the dead one before cooking.
- Give them a good brush and risen off them well under the tape water. Do it just before cooking, as some time chemical and bleach residual in the tape water may kill some of them. Believe it or not, crayfish is more sensitive to water contents than we do.
- Never eat crayfish raw.
- Use a big pot and make sure water covers all the crayfish at least 5CM over.
- The maximum boiling time for crayfish is no more than 5 minutes.
- When crayfish is cooked, for boiling, they will float to the surface; for wok frying, the shell will turn into bright orange-red.
- Don’t waste any soy sauce when you cook crayfish. It cannot go through the shell and the only thing that soy sauce does is ruining the appetising red colour, using it as dipping instead.
- The best tool is your hands when you eating crayfish with shell on.
- Remove the black line on the back of crayfish meat before eating.
For enjoyment, have a bottle of beer, Cheers!