Chinese crayfish train heads to Moscow as fans get ready to feast during World Cup

By Campos Santiago Source:Global Times Published: 2018/6/15 8:45:23

A red cargo train, sporting a large banner on its front with the words "Chinese crayfish rush to the rescue of the World Cup", is scheduled to arrive in Moscow in the next few days, carrying 100,000 frozen crayfish from central China to the Russian capital's restaurants and markets, just after the kickoff of the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

The train, which set off from Wuhan, capital of Central China's Hubei Province on May 31, has become the subject of a running joke in China, whose national soccer team failed to qualify to play in this year's World Cup. "Our soccer team didn't go to Russia, but everybody else is going," joked CCTV anchor Bai Yansong on June 10. "Even the crayfish are going," people say. Despite the national team not qualifying, approximately 100,000 Chinese soccer fans are expected to visit Russia during this year's World Cup, according to domestic travel agents.

The crayfish shipment, however, reflects many important realities about China and Russia. Chinese and Russian cuisines are remarkably different, but both peoples share a culinary habit: eating boiled crayfish on a summer night while drinking cold beer with friends.

"Crayfish is popular as a snack for beer during the summer," Julia, a Russian 30-something resident in Beijing, told the Global Times. "We fish them from local rivers, so they're not always easy to come by," she said.

Crayfish in China has long been evolving from a popular snack into a fully-fledged national industry. Raised mostly in rice paddies in south-central China, Crayfish-raising has been an important success story for agricultural modernization in recent years. According to the 2018 Crayfish Industry Development Report, published on June 12 by the Chinese Association of Fisheries, the economic activity generated by crayfish, what is being called the "crayfish economy," amounted to 268.5 billion yuan ($42 billion) in 2017, a year-on-year increase of 83 percent. The industry also employs more than 5 million people, who produced more than 1 million tons of the hard-shelled crustaceans in 2017 alone. That would have been enough to provide every single Chinese citizen with 800 grams of crayfish.

Why is crayfish so popular? "It's pretty good value for money," a Beijing restaurant owner surnamed Zeng told the Global Times. "It has plenty of meat, the flavor is rich and it just goes down very well with a beer, so it drives sales of drinks too," he said. Crayfish, which are called "little lobsters" in Chinese, cost about 40 yuan ($6.25) per pound in Beijing, and more than 1,800 restaurants across the country serve crayfish, according to the crayfish industry report.

But there's more to the little lobsters than their flavor. Crayfish are often eaten by large groups. During summer nights, big groups of people can be seen everywhere eating big plates of crayfish, served often with dark red Sichuan-style hot spicy sauce, with people busily peeling off shells with their hands while using disposable plastic gloves. These late night seafood feasts have become somewhat of a ritual in much of central and northern China.

"Crayfish are the ideal social food," said a 20-something seafood lover in Beijing. "You need both of your hands to extract the meat from the shell, and the thick sauce makes a mess with your hands, which means you can't use your smartphone [when eating]. The little lobsters force you to actually talk with your friends for a while," she said.

The industry's rapid growth has produced a mature supply chain, with established regional brands, standardized processes and reliable frozen transport. While exports are a small part of overall crayfish shipments - less than 2 percent in 2017 - some see the World Cup crayfish train as a sign of more opportunities in the future.

"The World Cup should be a good chance to introduce Chinese crayfish abroad," said Zeng. "Crayfish is all about eating with friends and having a good time. I'm sure Russians will enjoy it as much as we do."


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