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A pictorial guide to Chinese cooking ingredients


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Crayfish get complicated. Especially in China. 10 years ago, although few people knew what they were, next to no-one ate them. The one species of Chinese crayfish, Cambaroides dauricus was (and still is) very rare and they are very small, so not really worth eating. Today in 2024, it is said that 90% of all crayfish eaten by humans are done so in China.


But first the name. For a start, as I’m sure everyone knows, they are not fish but crustaceans. More importantly, they go under four common names in English. All are derived from the Old French word crevisse, at first spelled creusses (wih ‘u’ being pronounced as ‘v’ in Old English). This first appeared in the early 1400s. In modern French, it is écrevisse.


By 1555 this had morphed into crefysshe, the earliest fish-like reference, found in Richard Eden's Decades of the Newe Worlde or West India (eG-friendly Amazon.com link).


Crawfish followed in 1624 in The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (eG-friendly Amazon.com link) by Capt. John Smith, now mainly known for his part in the Pocahontas myths and legends.


They caught‥great craw-fishes.”


More recent arrivals are crawdad (in an 1878 Indiana magazine) and its variant crawdaddy (1901 in a Minnesota news paper, The Globe).


In China they are 小龙虾 (xiǎo lóng xiā). This literally means ‘small dragon shrimp’ but more pragmatically means ‘little lobster’. This can be misleading as some restaurants drop the ‘small’ part on their menus leaving the diners expecting lobster but getting crayfish. Price is your best guide. Lobster is much, much more expensive; one lobster will cost more than 2 kg of crayfish. I've never heard of any restaurant charging lobster prices for crayfish. An older name, 螯虾 (áo xiā) is less ambiguous, meaning 'nipper (or chela) shrimp', but I guess the marketing people saw that one off.


Having sorted out names (at least in two languages) there is still confusion. Where do the things come from?


The crayfish eaten today, Astacus fluviatilis were first imported to East Asia in the 1930s from Louisiana in the USA, to Japan. To feed not humans but bullfrogs which were and remain a popular protein. The frogs were imported from the USA, too.


Only during the years after World War 2, did Japanese troops introduce the Louisiana crayfish to China. They were still largely shunned as being unfit for human consumption although they did for a time become popular pets.


However some people, mainly rural peasant farmers, were eating them as a cheap or even free food supply. In the 2000s, many of these people, especially the younger generations, left their homes to seek employment in the cities when China became the world’s factory and the economy was starting to boom. Like migrants everywhere, they took their food culture with them and their new neighbours were happy to supply them with their needs.


By 2016, the number being eaten had risen hugely and a trend developed, first in Shanghai then across China. Crayfish became a hugely popular meal among mainly young people in the same way as the various hotpots across China are enjoyed. As a communal activity.


Groups of friends began to meet over huge platters of crayfish, peeling them themselves and washing them down with beers. Informal, messy and great fun! They would get through kilos of the critters – 20 kg for a party of four is not uncommon. This continues to this day.


Crayfish farms began to sprout up all over China but especially in Hebei and Jiangsu provinces – it is no coincidence these border Beijing and Shanghai, respectively.


Today, live crayfish are ubiquitous; supermarkets carry them in huge tankfuls and I can have them delivered to my door live or cooked in twenty minutes.



Crayfish in my local supermarket


So how are they cooked, you rightfully ask.


Generally, they are stir-fried with popular seasonings such as garlic, or with Beijing’s 13-spice mix.


13-Spice Powder


麻辣 (má là), the well known Sichuan flavour of Sichuan pepper and chilli is also a popular choice. The liquid component of any sauce is often beer although that's usually mostly boiled off; it tends to be a dry but sticky dish.



Mala crayfish being cooked


You can even get your crayfish fix at KFC or Pizza Hut where they throw them on pizzas.




You may have come across Lay’s crayfish chips / crisps which are now sold through Amazon, but originated in China.




All that said, I seldom eat them. Too much pain for so little gain. I’m sure de-shelling them and finding the meat consumes more calories than they replace! Give me real lobsters! Hang the expense!



Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.


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Chinese cuisine is possibly best known for its rapid cook stir-frying techniques but they know how to take it slow, too. One dish is known both for its unusual name and for its lengthy cooking time.


I’m talking about Fujian province’s well-known (at least in China) signature dish, 佛跳墙 (fó tiào qiáng). Fujian lies on China’s south-eastern coast opposite the island of Taiwan. This location means that seafood is a major part of the cuisine.


Yes, despite China’s preference this dish uses a lot of dried ingredients alongside the fresh. It must have been dreamt up by a Qing dynasty Chinese Ottolenghi, containing as it does eighteen or more ingredients depending on the chef.


佛跳墙 (fó tiào qiáng) translates as Buddha “Leaps the Wall” or is commonly mistranslated as Buddha jumps over the wall. This is said to refer to a Buddhist monk having smelled the dish being made who broke his vows by leaving his monastery and sampling the decidedly non-vegetarian dish. When chastised he is reported as saying that even the Buddha himself would not have been able to resist. Not that all Chinese Buddhist’s are vegetarian. The Dalai Lama isn’t.


The most common ingredients involved in this long cooked stew or soup-like dish include:


1. Lean pork (瘦肉 - shòu ròu)



2. Silkie chicken (乌骨鸡 - wū gǔ jī)




3. Chicken’s feet (凤爪 - fèng zhǎo)




4. Dried or fresh abalone (鲍鱼 - bào yú)




5. Pigeon (鸽蛋 - gē dàn) or quail eggs (鹌鹑蛋 - ān chún dàn)



Pigeon Eggs



Quail eggs


6. Deer leg tendons (鹿 筋)




7. Fish swim bladder (鱼肚 - yú dǔ)




8. Dried scallops (扇贝干 - shàn bèi gān)




9. Sea Cucumber (海参 - hǎi shēn)




10. Shark Fin (鱼翅 - yú chì)




A few years back the communist party banned the use of sharks fins at official functions, although they are still available. However, awareness of the cruelty involved in harvesting them has resulted in a sharp decline in their consumption.


Instead artificial fin made from konjak is being used to supply the desired texture. Less often, sharks skin is substituted.



Shark Skin


Then the herbal components all of which are considered to be medicinal.


11. Angelica sinensis (当归 - dāng guī)




12. Astragalus L. (黄芪 - huáng qí)





13. Codonopsis pilosula (党参dǎng shēn)




14. Cordceps militaris (虫草花 - chóng cǎo huā)




15. Dried  Chinese Yam (淮山 - huái shān)




16. Goji Berries (枸杞 - gǒu qǐ)




17. Jujubes (枣子 - zǎo zi)




18. Ginger (姜 - jiāng)




19. Solomon’s Seal - (兰 qián lán).




20. Codonopsis pilosula (党参 - dǎng shēn)




21. Ginseng (人参 - rén shēn)




After that lengthy list, thankfully the cooking instructions are short to relate but long to achieve. Bung the lot, except for the eggs, into a slow cooker with chicken stock and good quality Shaoxing wine and simmer for six hours. Refrigerate overnight. Next day boil the eggs then heat up the stew, add the eggs and stand back to avoid leaping Buddhists.





Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.


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4 minutes ago, Tropicalsenior said:

Good Lord! I take it that this is a festival dish not a typical weeknight dinner.


indeed. Not necessarily a festival dish, but almost exclusively a restaurant dish. I don't know anyone who makes it at home. I have eaten it in Fujian, but although it was OK, I'm not planning to rush back.


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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.


"No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot"
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The Kitchen Scale Manifesto

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山箭菜 (shān jiàn cài) or 本山箭 (běn shān jiàn), wasabi (Japanese: わさび) is not used in Chinese cuisine although many people are partial to sushi and sashimi (both of which originated in China, but then fell out of favour until reintroduced when there was a trend for Japanese food some twenty years ago. All the ‘Japanese’ restaurants were Chinese-owned and most have now gone, although supermarkets and some small shacks still sell sushi with decidedly Chinese characteristics.


However China, despite generally loathing the Japanese, have a yen for some Japanese Yen (and their electronic goods and cameras). Today, wasabi is grown in various parts of China. Most is exported to Japan, although I do manage to get hold of some escapees.


I’ve never seen it in any store, but can get it by express delivery online. It comes with dire warnings as to storing it correctly. I am advised to store it between 0℃ and 6℃ for a maximum of 14 days. It should not be frozen or stored at room temperature.


This bag, from Yunnan province, contains 36g of vacuum-packed fresh wasabi root and cost approximately $4 USD. However delivery cost another $3.20. Still, to me, it’s worth it. I could buy a 100g bag with no increase in the delivery charge, but I wouldn't get through it in 14 days.




Of course, it tastes much better when grated properly using my sharkskin wasabi grater.






Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.


"No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot"
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... and here for your perusal is 500g of donkey meat. Not cheap; ¥88. About double the cost of beef.




The julienned ginger is added as it is thought to prevent 'off smells' or 'gaminess' in some meats. Lamb often gets the same treatment.


Guess what's on my menu tonight.


(Thinking about it though, some donkey sashimi might go well with the wasabi above.)



Edited by liuzhou (log)
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...your dancing child with his Chinese suit.


"No amount of evidence will ever persuade an idiot"
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