Last week a truck that was carrying 200 boxes of crayfish – about 5 tonnes of the crustacean – skidded while on a highway in Jingzhou, Hubei province, and toppled over. The driver was unhurt by the accident, though the same couldn’t be said about the ‘little lobsters’, which is what they are called in China.
Apparently onlookers were so excited to see a highway crawling with crayfish that many locals “went crazy” frantically trying to catch the freshwater creatures as they escaped, says the Apple Daily.
The period between June and August is the harvest season for the delicacy and it is believed that crayfish are juiciest during this period. Over the past few years, consuming crayfish has become hugely popular after several Chinese celebrities declared their affection for the freshwater relative of the lobster. For instance, Papi Jiang, one of China’s most popular internet personalities, has posted several videos of herself eating the crustacean.
According to Xinhua, the crayfish was first introduced to China in Jiangsu province by a Japanese merchant in the 1920s as bullfrog feed. About 30 years ago, crayfish farming moved to the Jianghan Plain in Hubei, where the fertile land and a large network of rivers and lakes became an ideal habitat.
Rice farmers, however, did not initially share the enthusiasm for the diminutive clawed creatures. “They pinched rice seedlings in the paddy fields, and made tunnels in ridges that caused water loss,” one farmer told the Global Times.
Over time local farmers came to embrace crayfish as they grew into a huge business for Hubei, which remains the biggest crayfish-producing province in the country.
One research report conducted by China Fishery Law Enforcement estimated that in 2016 China consumed about 880,000 tonnes of crayfish, up 32.5% from 2014. To put that in perspective: the official US body the NOAA says that Americans ate 2.1 million tonnes of all seafood in 2009 (the last year it has data for).
The annual value of crayfish sales has also surpassed Rmb10 billion ($1.6 billion), said Xinhua, with the industry hiring more than 5 million people across various parts of the supply chain.
By June 2016, Xinhua reported, there were 17,670 crayfish eateries (up 33% year-on-year), or three times the number of KFC outlets in the country. While Scandanavians like to enjoy their crayfish by boiling it with lots of dill and Columbians choose to perch it on a plate of seafood jambalaya, the Chinese mostly prefer cooking it Sichuan-style: with lots of spices and chilli pepper. Another reason for crayfish’s widening appeal is that it is usually consumed in a social environment – much like hotpot – as friends and families gather around the table taking apart the shell to eat the succulent lobster-like meat.
And perhaps most importantly, unlike its close cousin the lobster, crayfish is a great deal more affordable. Beijing Business Today reckons that a crayfish costs only Rmb2 ($0.3) in the Chinese capital.
The fact that crayfish is now more available than ever also contributes to its popularity. With the proliferation of cold-chain logistics and the ease of e-commerce, more and more people are buying crayfish online. Recently Tmall, the e-commerce platform owned by Alibaba, sold over 4 million crayfish in two days, says China Entrepreneur. For customers in first-tier cities, Tmall also promises same-day delivery.
However, the enormous appetite for crayfish also means that supply can hardly keep up. Even though China used to meet 60% of Europe’s crayfish demand, National Business Daily reported that last year China produced 899,100 tonnes of crayfish but consumed almost all of it at home.
The booming market has attracted a flood of investment. Several crayfish sellers like Hot Claws have received funding from venture capitalists. Hotpot chain Haidilao, too, recently invested in a crayfish fast food chain through its subsidiary U-Dingu Food Management. Similarly, Zhou Hei Ya, a fast food chain famous for its spicy braised duck, has taken advantage of its home base in Hubei to launch its own crayfish brand.
Still, the crayfish craze is not without risks. The fact that the season ends in August means that a lot of restaurants that specialise in the crustacean are forced to go into hiatus. Even though a new breeding technique has made it possible to enjoy crayfish all year-round, fanatics still maintain that the tiny lobsters are much more flavourful during peak season.
Xinhua reckons that most crayfish restaurants “make money half the year, and lose money in the rest of the year”.
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