From the swamps, a Chinese food phenomenon

When the Three Tenors played the Forbidden City recently, the TVs on Ghost Street were all tuned in.

As Luciano Pavarotti wiped his brow after "Moon River," a cheer went up. Yet, for patrons of the 102 crowded restaurants on this famed Beijing strip, the real hero of the evening was a shrimp.

Well, sort of. In the US, they are known as "swamp crayfish." Australians call them "yabbies." But in China, they go by "hot baby lobsters," or "small dragon shrimp."

Whatever the name, the tiny crustaceans are clawing their way into culinary history this summer, becoming an instant tradition in China's capital.

For 20 yuan ($2.40) - the cost of a hamburger, french fries, and a Coke here - you get about 15 crayfish. To eat, don't stand on ceremony. Men sit with their shirts off or rolled part way up, Chinese-style, talking and munching blissfully.

On a street known for special cuisine - Mongolian hot pot, Cantonese, dim sum, Sichuan - the baby lobsters have taken control. Walk into Happy Heart, Snow Dragon House, Mr. Hua's Place, or any of a half mile of eateries - and one sees endless piles of shells.

Euphoria over winning the chance to host the 2008 summer Olympics may have quieted in Beijing. Enthusiasm for the shrimp has not.

"I was in a duck restaurant yesterday," says one diplomat. "And I look at the table next to me, and they've got these shellfish. I ask my wife, 'What's going on?' "

What's going on is the careful creation of a niche market - with Chinese characteristics.

For years, dragon shrimp were considered "trash fish," known to wallow in filthy water. Like lobsters in early New England, which lay on beaches by the thousands, they were eaten only in low-income homes.

Yet, two years ago, new freshwater shellfish farms in south China went online. Baby lobsters that cleaned up their act, so to speak, were a success waiting to happen: cheap, fun to eat, and allowing many styles of preparation. Two years ago, Beijingers ate about 8 tons of the "hot baby lobsters" a day.

This June and July, the figure rose to 15 tons a day - or more than 300,000 of the clawed crustaceans, according to restaurant and official news sources.

Mr. Hu, a seafood salesman known as "shrimp brother," has doubled his deliveries to Ghost Street. "It is a miracle," he says.

The dining protocol - a leisurely meal of talking and snacking on late-summer nights - seems to symbolize some idea of "the good life" to an aspiring class of Beijingers.

In Mandarin, longxia, or lobster, literally translates to "dragon shrimp." But because "a lot of people want to feel like they are eating something special," says one Beijinger, they speak of longxia instead of xiao longxia - "small dragon shrimp." In any event, these aren't shrimp any more than lobsters are. They are crayfish, specifically, cambarus pro clarkii.

"I don't know how traditions start," says Zhu Yanying, manager of the Golden Vessel, which serves 400 to 500 people a day. "But here is a case of everyone feeling like, 'This is us.' People spend more time at the table. They talk and open up. The shrimp come out. It is a nice appearance, and a dinner process. The shrimp really started last year. This year, we can't keep up."

Each restaurant has a special recipe developed by its chef, leading to an entire dragon-shrimp subculture. Ghost Street hole-in-the-wall joints with 10 tables may have 20 people waiting outside. Translation: "Eureka - the chef has found the next great flavor."

Some of the mini-lobsters ride in by plane from Jiangsu or Guangdong province farms on the coast. The regular method is to truck or train them from Shandong, a northern province just below Beijing. They must be fresh, i.e. still alive, when cooked.

So successful are the new farms, that crayfish lobbyists in the Southern United States are taking note and complaining about cheap imports.

In recent years, many seafoods once thought homely and dull - including mullet, tuna, and skate - have risen in rank on the international market. Whither the yabbie?

To get under the shell of the story, it must be said that flavors mostly range within a spectrum that qualifies as "spicy." Some are fried, some are steamed, some both. Some flavors are described as "clean, fresh, homestyle." Others are "fragrant," or "sharp." The Chinese yabbie does not have as much meat as a jumbo shrimp, but it's a mouthful.

Chef Yu Jiansheng of the East Happy restaurant spends nine hours a day in constant motion behind two gas-fired, army-sized pots. When he is not working, Mr. Yu goes out to taste the recipes of his 101 competitors.

He has perfected a "fresh and fragrant style," he says, and the throng of cellphone-toting diners at the open-air courtyard seem to vote favorably.

Yu fries a small number of fresh dragon shrimp in a wok with vegetable oil for a few minutes. He then adds them to a vat of the bright red crustaceans, that steam in a mixture of three types of peppers, garlic, vinegar, salt, soy sauce, and cooking wine.

"I cook in front of everyone," he says. "I don't care to hide my recipe."

Beneath traditional red lanterns at the Treasure Peace restaurant, however, owner Zhang Jun says his recipe is a "business secret." Mr. Zhang, dressed from head to toe in black silk, and regarded as something like the Colonel Sanders of dragon shrimp, opened a second restaurant last month. But he still has too many customers.

"We tried many places," says Dian Wei, a salesman at Legend Computers who waits with friends outside Treasure Peace. "But here is the best flavor. I eat here at least once a week."

"In winter, the shrimps aren't mature, so we take our profits in June, July, and August," Zhang says. "The southern farms have changed Ghost Street. I think foreigners coming in 2008 will find [the dragon shrimp] delicious."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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