The long-time Citizens of the mighty TFD Nation know that the fastest way to the gastronomic heart of the Suzerain who reigns supreme is through the magic and mystery of crayfish in all of its myriad forms!
There are many recipes for the infamous ‘mud bugs’ here on TFD, ranging from the bayous of New Orleans to the flooded rice estuaries of China – and it is to China we shall wing today, in celebration of one of the lesser-known (at least in the States) recipes for this freshwater delicacy!
You may be familiar with the unique Chinese spice blend known as “5-spice” that is a standard flavor in many roasted meats of Cantonese origin – but what about “13-spice”? That, you probably do not have knowledge of – the Great Teacher who alone is TFD shall now elucidate its flavorful joys for you!
Thirteen-spice十三香, like five-spice, is a comprehensive seasoning powder. It is made from – unsurprisingly – 13 different scented traditional Chinese herbs and spices. It includes star anise, fennel, galangal, sand ginger, resurrection lily rhizome, white pepper, cumin, amomum villosum, Sichuan pepper, angelica dahurica, dried orange peel, Fructus Tsaoko, elecampane, nutmeg, clove and cinnamon.
These spices are strictly the guesswork of the general public, as the family that makes this powder still keeps the ingredients and blending formula as a secret and has dominated the palates of many Chinese unchallenged for generations.
Mercifully, it is easy to purchase here in the United States – grab it on Amazon here.
As to crayfish – how did these end up in China? Ah, now there is a story indeed! As noted on foodtalkcentral.com:
In the 1930s, Louisiana red swamp crayfish was brought to Jiangsu province by the Japanese. While first the creatures were seen as exotic, they were not welcomed by the local people as they caused crop damage and brought no direct benefits to people of the community. However, the crayfish adapted to the local environment and populations began to flourish in the coastal environment.
Eventually, the crayfish were made and popularized into a dish called xuyi shisanxiang longxia, or “Xuyi Thirteen Fragrance Little Lobster,” that brought major business to cities in the 1990s. The flavor was influenced by neighboring provinces like Anhui and Zhejiang which contributed to the spicy oil mixture the crayfish are cooked in. Now, crayfish are considered a local food as they are farmed in coastal areas.
Despite their popularity here, crayfish – known as xiaolongxia (小龙虾), little dragon shrimp, in Chinese – do not have a long history in Chinese cuisine. It was only in the late 1990s that crayfish fever swept across the Chinese mainland. Crayfish are generally served with mala – hot and numbing – flavors. In Beijing and other northern parts, mala flavored crayfish (麻辣小龙虾) is shortened to maxiao (麻小) and is often enjoyed with beer in a hot mid-summer evening.
Further south, in places such as Anhui and Jiangsu provinces and Shanghai, people prefer the flavor of shisanxiang crayfish (十三香小龙虾), which means the sauce includes 13 different kinds of spices, such as aniseed, cumin, cinnamon and ginger, to enhance a multi-layered flavor and which tastes a little sweeter than maxiao.
Apparently: maxiao 麻小- mala-flavored crayfish and shisanxiang crayfish 十三香小龙虾 – thirteen spice crayfish.
If at all possible, try and get as many female crayfish as possible – their roe is delicious and they tend to be better suited to this dish. How can you tell them apart, you might ask? On the breast, the male crayfish’s first two pairs of feet are obviously longer than that of the female crayfish. Another conspicuous difference is that the male crayfish has a red membrane on the front edge of its feet, while the female shrimp does not have this red membrane.
Other tips include:
- Select only crayfish that have lived in clear water, such as lake water. You must buy live crayfish, or frozen. Do not buy dead ones or ones where you are unsure whether it has lived in a polluted environment.
- The ideal crayfish is one with a dark green shell that possesses clean and small claws. Its meat is relatively tender – but the meat of red-shelled crayfish can be tough and is not as tasty as the dark green one.
- Select crayfish with clean abdomens and feet.
If there are no crayfish vendors in your area, you can mail order live ones from here – ask for as many females in the order as you can. Other ingredients needed for this recipe such as the best 3-year aged doubanjiang, sweet wheat paste and facing heaven chiles can be purchased at their respective links.
The 13-spice version is truly delectable and one that I have every confidence you should try forthwith for your next Summer crawdad feast! 😀
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