Drunken CrawfishIf one bowl doesn't get your buzz on...
When I landed in China back in September of 2005, the first city I lived in was Xiangfan (since renamed Xiangyang) in the Hubei province. One of the local specialties is da xia,
or crawfish. A fabulously hot and spicy take on one of my favorite crustaceans. And, IMHO, better than any Cajun crawfish I've ever had.
The crawfish are cooked in oil (not boiled) and the whole dish is infused with a palette of spices and flavorings designed to tickle the palate...mainly including garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, salt and a generous helping of Sichuan peppers for the requisite numbingly hot and spicy overtone.
We returned for a visit recently and...having lived in northeast China (Dalian) for the past five years where the local fare is astoundingly bland and boring...you can imagine that our mouths were watering in anticipation. However, to our dismay, our former crawfish mainstay, a true dive yet long on flavor, was long gone.
That first night we tried a place on the same street dishing out bowls for 68RMB, roughly $10. And left hugely disappointed. The next morning we went out for breakfast to a spot famous for its beef noodles. When two men sat down next to us and began busily slurping away at their bowls of noodles, we asked if they could recommend a good place.
Turned out that one was a government official, the other his driver. Our good fortune because government officials always know the best places for currying favor, or flavor as it were. As we all finished our noodles, the official offered to drive us to his favorite restaurant...a place where he said they set up 100 tables each night in an open courtyard at the corner of an intersection next to the Hanjiang River.
Since he said the place was always packed, even more so from 10pm to midnight with late night diners, we chose to arrive early, around 5:30pm, just as an army of 20 workers was setting up tables. Yes, all 100 of them, so he wasn't lying. And the kitchen wasn't open yet. Sigh.
Not to fear though...because in China, if there is one kind of business on a street, it's always surrounded by at least a dozen of the same ilk. A slow amble 20 meters down the block and we were seated and had ordered a bowl for 98RMB, or $15. Which turned out to be no better than the previous night flavor-wise and even worse since most of the crawfish were dead before they were cooked. Mealy, crumbling, disappointing.
Still hungry and by now more than a little worried about the fate of our crawfish expedition, we went back up the street to the place on the corner where the tables were now all set and the kitchen was open for business. Plopped ourselves down and ordered their 198RMB, $25 bowl of crawfish!! Opened the standard issue, plastic-wrapped set of dish, rice bowl, spoon and cup and sat there with kuaizi
(chopsticks) in hand.
Twenty minutes later the bowl arrives. Cautiously, tentatively, hopefully...we suck the juices from the body, pluck out a plump tail and pop into our mouths. Gleefully, blissfully, gratefully...we beam at each other and greedily dive back into the bowl of crawfish.
We had truly arrived at crawfish heaven. Uber crawfish. Tebie hao da xia.
Especially good crawfish. Our only complaint when the crawfish ran out was that we had already blunted our appetites at the previous total fail.
So, since one bowl wasn't enough that night. We went back the next night and ordered two bowls. Ate 'em all up. And again the next night. And the next. And the next. Yes, we went there five nights in a row. (I'll leave it up to you to tot up our crawfish tab for all six nights.)
That first night the army of waiters...because I'm laowai,
a foreigner...alternately beamed and/or shyly smiled at us. The second night they all nudged each other, laughing and giggling. The rest of the nights they simply stared at us in utter amazement. One waiter, a girl, even came up to us the last night to ask if we weren't worried about getting doudou,
pimples...from all the hot and spicy food.
To round this up and harking back to the title of my post, any specialty is going to be slightly different from place to place. We rarely go out since we both like to cook, but when we do and especially when we're traveling we both enjoy picking out, trying to detect the subtleties of flavor.
In pecking through the dregs of the bowls at this wonderful pai dang,
or al fresco establishment, as well as smacking our numb lips and sucking on our hot tongues to wring out the final, lingering tones of flavor...it was obvious this place had its own signature ingredients.
One thing we puzzled over was what my wife called a poppy nut
in Chinese, not seeds. Definitely nut looking. We took one with us, but I can't find it in order to show you. Yet she had a strong feeling it was somehow related to the poppy plant and, hence, perhaps some side effects. IDK.
As for the boozy crawfish, there was no doubt the chef was using bai jiu,
which translates as white wine, yet it's no wine at all. Rather it's a strong liquor typically made from sorghum or maize, which tastes like an apocalyptic combination of kerosene and jet fuel. And I'm not exaggerating.
Drinking bai jiu
(and smoking) drives all male encounters in China. And when they say gan bei,
bottoms up, they mean it. Picture a common restaurant juice glass, say maybe 3-4 ounces. Bottoms up. Over and over. I used to participate (when in China...) out of respect and courtesy, but haven't touched a drop in, oh, 6-7 years. It's that bad.
Anywaaay, when we finished that first night, my wife said she was feeling tipsy. Like the majority of women here she doesn't really drink (or smoke) and we'd both been sucking every drop of juice out of every crawfish. I was feeling tipsy, too. As if I'd had two quick shots of tequila.
My wife's personal take on crawfish is just as good (lucky me, she hails from Hubei), but different. She's looking to tinker with her recipe now, so maybe I'll report back later before they go out of season.
In the meantime, if by chance you ever find yourself in Xiangyang, definitely go for the drunken crawfish. #chinesefood #iphone6 #iphoneography