Fad or Future

Crayfish boils: could this crustacean invade Britain soon?

Food Spark takes a look at the popular dish that has China and the American Deep South so infatuated.

25 September 2018
image credit: Getty Images

A crayfish boil? What’s that then?

The key here is where you are in the world. The two most popular and common versions of the crayfish boil are found in the American Deep South, such as Louisiana and New Orleans, and across China.

Both rely on boiling large quantities of crayfish, but they differ in what goes in the pot. The Chinese version contains many of the country’s gastronomical stalwarts, with a Sichuan example likely to include ginger, star anise, chilli flakes, sesame oil, rice wine, soy sauce and Sichuan peppercorns.

The Deep South is often a Cajun affair, with plenty of spices such as cayenne pepper and paprika joining potatoes, lemon, garlic, onions and cobs of corn in the mix. In China, it is close to being the country’s unofficial number one dish as there are nearly 18,000 restaurants specialising in crayfish. In fact, it has spawned an industry that employs five million people, mainly in the provinces of Jiangsu, Hubei, Jiangxi and Anhui.

All versions require gloves and hearty appetites as crayfish are eaten by the pound and often in large social gatherings. Forget your phone, this is a rather messy activity!

I can’t say that I’ve seen crayfish on the menu much in London. Is it starting to pop up?

Historically, the crayfish boil hasn’t made much ground globally.

But one of our American trend-spotters has recently flagged it as a slow growing thing in New York, with one restaurant in particular, Le Sia in the East Village, starting to make a name for itself with their Chinese-style crayfish boils.

Le Sia means ‘the shrimp’ and with its signature dish it boils the crayfish in a pot of herbal soup containing 13 spices, then wok-fries it with a choice of eight flavours like garlic, kimchi lime and soy sauce, and diners also have the option of four levels of spiciness from mild to fire.

In London, a handful of popups and crayfish-orientated events have sprung up in recent years, along with a few Nordic variants.

And another thing: is it crayfish or crawfish?

It’s all about where you are rather than a correct spelling. The term crayfish is more commonly used across Europe and northern parts of America, while crawfish is known in southern American states, but there is some overlap.

Different species of crayfish have other local names around the world such as crawdads and mudbugs in central/southwestern America, yabbies in Australia and in China, little lobsters.

These crayfish, as is the UK spelling, are known as an invasive species, so they’re something of a pest if introduced to a new environment. The American Signal Crayfish, for example, was introduced into Europe in the 1960s and is now found in British freshwater lakes and rivers.

There is a myth that the Japanese first brought crayfish to China from the US to harm Chinese rice farming in Jiangsu around the 1930s, as the crustaceans eat the roots of crops. However, research suggests that American crayfish were released by the Japanese before they returned from China after the end of the Sino-Japanese War, with their pets more than adapting to their new surroundings.

But it seems as though the opportunity for crayfish boils to go beyond their more traditional audience currently lies with the Chinese. Their production of crayfish has jumped from 265,000 tonnes in 2007 to 850,000 tonnes in 2016, according to China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, making China the largest source of the crustacean in the world.

For now, it could be that London, which has perhaps never been more adventurous in terms of its gastronomical outlook, is ripe for an enterprising group to take advantage of this dish.

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