Louisiana native Chef Donald Link wrote passionately about them in his fantastic cookbooks Real Cajun and Down South, and introduced me to recipes such as crawfish pies, crawfish étouffée, and crawfish gratin.
This iconic American southern ingredient was brought to China, via Japan, about a hundred years ago, and has been embraced by the local cooking there. Called Xiao Long Xia (小龙虾) in Mandarin, which literally means “little lobster”, they are great when stir-fried head on shell on, and their sweet and tender meat contrasts nicely with aggressive flavors such as garlic, spice mix, or beer. Of course, for crawfish aficionados, the best part is sucking the head for the prized head juice.
My favorite Chinese crawfish dish is “Mala crawfish (麻辣小龙虾)” or Numbing (ma) and spicy (la) crawfish. The “mala” effect is created by Sichuan peppercorns and dried chile peppers, and they sure will set both your tongue and appetite on fire. I make this dish each year when crawfish are in high season, typically in April and May, and I can find live ones at Sea Breeze Fish Market near Port Authority, or in Chinatown.
While you can use frozen crawfish for this dish, I highly recommend that you use live ones if you can. By the way, I’ve discovered that you can have live crawfish shipped via FedEx from Louisiana Crawfish Co. (lacrawfish.com). Isn’t it amazing?
Before cooking crawfish, you need to clean (or purge) them in order to remove impurities in their intestinal tract. An effective way is to keep them in a sink filled with salted water for 10 to 20 minutes. Once cleaning is done, it only takes you a few minutes to cook them. And then, to claim your reward, do the following: twist and snap the head (and suck the juice), peel the shell, tug out the tail meat, and enjoy.
Be sure to have lots of paper towels handy and cold beer ready!
Mala crawfish (麻辣小龙虾)
Makes 2 servings
1 lb (454 g) live crawfish
1 bunch scallions, cut inot 1-inch (2.5 cm) sections
1-inch (2.5 cm) ginger, thinly sliced
2 gloves garlic, thinly sliced
6 pieces dried chile peppers, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) sections
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns, crushed
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon Zhenjiang (aka Chinkiang) vinegar
1 teaspoon Shaoxing wine
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
- Clean the crawfish by keeping them in a sink filled with salted water for 10 to 20 minutes. Rinse thorough under running water and drain well.
- Heat the oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the Sichuan peppercorns and chile peppers, and stir fry until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add the ginger and scallions. Turn up the heat and stir fry for another minute.
- Add 1 cup of water, soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, and wine. Bring the mixture to a boil and add the crawfish. Turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Stir and mix for 4-5 minutes until the cooking liquid is reduced and crawfish are cooked. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed. Serve hot or warm.
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