Chinese carp
Much of the fish that people eat in China is farm-cultured fish such as silver carp. Stewed fish heads are popular in some places. The gelatinlike meat around the eyes is said to be particularly good. Other common fishes include Wuchang fish, bluntnose, black bream, Hui fish and long-nose catfish. Spicy crabs and pawns are served in stone pots, “soaked” crab and prawns have unique flavors made from soaking the food in seasoning materials.

Seafood such as shrimp, prawns, crab, lobster, clams, dried fish, squid, flounder, eels, dried jellyfish, preserved shark fins, seaweed, and sea cucumber are most widely available in the coastal areas such as Shanghai and Hong Kong. Salted and dried jellyfish is a popular snack.

On the squirrel-shaped fish from Suzhou, Takahiro Suzuki wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “When I first saw the deep-fried mandarin fish, a local specialty in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, its appearance startled me. The dish, songshu guiyu, is shaped like a squirrel. Song He Lou, a restaurant of long standing, that has branch restaurants across the city, is famous for inventing it. In preparing the dish, the freshwater fish - a species of perch living in eastern China - is first filleted and then lattice-like cuts are made on the surface of its flesh. It is then batter-fried, and served with sugared vinegar sauce. As the side with lattice-like cuts is placed upward with the fish skin face down on a plate, the deep-fried fish looks like a squirrel with its hair standing up. When fried, the bland flesh goes well with the sweet sour sauce. "Crispy outside, and tender inside," Wang Bo, 25, of the restaurant, said proudly. About 90 percent of the restaurant's customers order the dish, which is priced at 188 yuan ($30). The taste is so mouth-watering it will make you want to come back to eat it again. [Source: Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 8 2014]

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Eating China Blog ; Imperial Food, Chinese Government site; Wikipedia article on History of Chinese Food Wikipedia ; Chopstix ; Asia Recipe ; Chinese Food Recipes : Food Tours in China, China Highlights China Highlights


Abalone is another delicacy. Chinese believe that abalone helps eyesight, cures insomnia and strengthens the liver. A plate of braised abalone goes for $312 at the Rich & Powerful People Restaurant in Harbin. Some restaurants in Hong Kong offer abalone dishes, served with golden chopsticks, spoons and goblets, that cost around US$3,225 a plate. The abalone is simmered for 14 hours before serving. Abalone aficionados rave about the mollusk’s “velvety tenderness” and ‘succulent flavor.” So much abalone has been consumed that its stocks have been seriously depleted. Abalone can be raised through aquaculture.

Abalone is a giant snail often found in relatively shallow water. It is collected in the wild by divers who swim down in five meter deep water and pry the shells off the rocks.Abalone takes a long time to grow and its number have declined over the years. Commercial collection is banned in many places. Abalones are native to the Pacific. Their shell is ear shaped. The animal crawls around on the bottom of the sea or attaches itself to rocks with the shell facing upwards. It is a grazing animal that feeds on algae and microscopic plants. There are white, red, pink, green and black varieties of abalone. Some species lay 6 million eggs at a time when they spawn. Others are very fussy and breed only in the right conditions.

Harvesting abalone can be a dangerous occupation. In 2007, eight abalone hunters died along the rugged Sonoma and Mendocino counties in California.. Among those who died are experienced divers who got tangled up in kelp. Others have been killed by great white sharks or being thrown onto rocks by large waves.

China's Crackdown on Extravagance Means Abalone off the Menu

Haliotidae (abalones)
In September 2013, Associated Press reported: “The shark's fin, bird's nest and abalone are gone from the offerings at Beijing's Xiang E Qing restaurant - a favourite of Communist Party cadres just months ago. Diners are now left with less exotic fare such as shredded beef, pickled turnip and fried peanuts. [Source: Associated Press, September 4, 2013 **]

“China's high-end restaurants have gone into crisis under leader Xi Jinping's campaign to crack down on party extravagances that have angered ordinary Chinese, such as dining on the public dime. To stem big losses and avoid the now-tarnished image of VIP banquet halls, these restaurants have been busy reinventing themselves. "We don't do high-end! We just serve family-style food!" a jittery manager at Xiang E Qing told a visitor who wanted to see the dramatic, near-overnight transformation of one of the capital's most prestigious eateries. **

“The Xiang E Qing restaurant in Beijing - part of a national chain that has been among the hardest hit - no longer has the expensive liquors, minimum spending requirements or special fees for the private banquet rooms where government officials and business executives once gathered in seclusion. Its calling cards have been rewritten to promote a joyful, family atmosphere. **

“Restaurants serving exquisite delicacies in banquet rooms long flourished under the lavish spending habits among all levels of public officials, who spent about 300 billion yuan (Dh183.6bn) a year on food and drinks in recent years, according to state media. But new party rules since the beginning of this year curb spending on food and drink, and Mr Xi has set the example by having a work meal of four simple dishes and one soup. **

“Some of that wining and dining has gone underground, with officials sprucing up private clubs and government canteens with pricey booze and fancy meals or ducking into secluded locales to avoid detection, according to state media who have sent undercover reporters. Even so, China's dining market has hit its lowest point in more than two decades - barring a brief industry collapse related to the 2003 Sars epidemic - and the high-end market had suffered the most, the commerce ministry spokesman Yao Jian said last week. **

“To cope with the new reality, high-end restaurants are diversifying services to include fast food and takeout, or offering modestly priced homestyle dishes and hot pots with wider, common-folk appeal. The anti-waste campaign promoted in state media has not been aimed solely at party cadres, but also at members of the public, urging them not to over-order and to clean their plates."We are all remaking ourselves," said Han Fang, a manager at another high-end restaurant in Beijing. "We need to adjust to whatever the policies the country has." **

“The Xiao Nan Guo restaurant in downtown Beijing specialises in elaborate Shanghai-style cuisine on white tablecloths with floral arrangements in private rooms behind thick, carved wooden doors. To attract more customers, it has revamped its menu to include new dishes priced under Dh40, said Zheng Yuming, the restaurant's general manager. Its parent company, national chain Xiao Nan Guo Restaurant Holdings Group, reported a 43.3 per cent decline in profits for the first six months of 2013, citing a slowing economy, bird flu and "the prolonged curb in lavish spending by Chinese government officials". **

“At least Xiao Nan Guo stayed in the black. Xiang E Qing fared much worse. The national chain reported a loss of Dh128.5 million for the first six months of the year, a steep plunge from a net profit of Dh44 million for the same period in 2012. It cited "national policies" and the downturn in high-end banqueting in its financial report, while noting that the "mass market is stable and rising." "The weakening business of the high-end restaurants is for sure related to the new rules, and at least in the next year, that won't change or ease," said Peng Xizhe, dean for the School of Social Development and Public Policy at Shanghai-based Fudan University. "The high-end restaurants which rely on public money have to find some other ways to work it out." **

Hairy Crab in China

Crab meat is a delicacy in China, with hairy, green, mud crabs from the lower reaches of the Yangtze River around Shanghai regarded as the best. The autumn is considered as the best time to eat them: September for females, when its it said their meat is especially tender, and October for males. Hong Kong hosts beauty pageant for hairy green mud crabs. In 2004, a pair crowned king and queen were auctioned off for $25,600.

Shanghai is famous for its freshwater "hairy" crabs. The crabs are indigenous to rivers and lakes in the Shanghai and Kuangchou regions and is raised in fish farm ponds, often filled with Yangtze River water. In markets the crabs are sold live with their legs bound together with rubber bands. Smaller crabs are said to be tastier than large ones.

Offering a guest some fresh crab is regarded as the best possible form of hospitality in Shanghai. Chinese not only eat the meat the also enjoy consuming the crab innards (known as “kanimiso”), which is found under the carapace. The eggs in females is also eaten. Much of the time the crab is prepared in a bamboo steamer. The carapace is opened by hand and the meat and kanimiso is plucked out with chopsticks and dipped in soy sauce with vinegar and ginger.

Hairy crab has been described as a delicacy on the order of foie gras and eating it has been called a life-changing experience. The best ones are said to come from YangCheng Lake in Jiangsu Province. Many Chinese drink Shaoxing-style “yellow” wine as an accompaniment. Drunken crabs is a specialty that needs to be ordered in advance. The crabmeat and roe is soaked in Chinese wine-based marinade for at least four days. The marinade includes crushed garlic, ginger, leeks, pepper, sugar and star anise. After several days of soaking the meat and roe take on a gelatinous texture and have a rich, sweet, peppery taste.

hairy crab

A banquet featuring "hairy crab" can set one back US$1,000 or more. Wang Boa He is a centuries-old restaurant in Shanghai famous for hairy crab. Diners are first shown the crabs which look like rocks bound with a threadlike material and then serve the crabs after they have been steamed. Some who have eaten at the restaurant say the crabs are not all they have been cracked up to be, saying they smell like a dirty river, their carapaces are blighted with gelatinous black deposits and the meat is stringy and bland rather than sweet and tender. The meat is dipped in a sauce of rice wine and vinegar that one diner said “would make anything palatable.” The yellow wine is dry and acidic.

Hairy crabs are grey-green in color and about the size of a fist. They get their name from the clusters of bristles found on their legs. These days most hairy crabs are farmed elsewhere and made to “take a shower” in Yangcheng Lake before they go to market.

American Lobster: Chinese New Year Delicacy

Patrick Whittle of Associated Press wrote: “Now on the menu in Beijing for Chinese New Year: lots and lots of American lobster. Exports of U.S. lobster to China have rocketed in the past few years, largely to satisfy the appetites of the communist country’s growing middle class, to whom a steamed, whole crustacean — flown in live from the United States — is not just a festive delicacy and a good-luck symbol but also a mark of prosperity. And that’s good news for Maine, far and away the No. 1 lobster state in the United States. The lobster boom has put more money in the pockets of lobstermen and kept shippers and processors busy during the usually slack midwinter months. [Source: Patrick Whittle, Associated Press, February 17, 2015 \=]

“Every morning at 9, the Auspicious Garden restaurant in Beijing receives 800 lobsters that have just crossed the Pacific aboard a cargo plane. In the evening, hundreds of diners fill the two-story restaurant in the gigantic Pangu Seven Stars Hotel for a nearly $80 all-you-can-eat buffet with New England lobster as the main attraction. Xu Daqiang, a 35-year-old businessman on a romantic date with his girlfriend, said food-safety concerns in China make him choose expensive high-class restaurants where he can find imported seafood. Cao Lijun, a 24-year-old Shanghai resident celebrating her friend’s birthday, alluded to lobster’s reputed aphrodisiac properties with a laugh: “How to say it? It makes my husband healthier. Really, this is what we say, because it is high in proteins.”\=\

“Lobsters and other foods seen as luxuries are popular at Lunar New Year and other festive occasions. The bright red of a cooked lobster is considered lucky, as it resembles a dragon. China also imports lobsters from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, but the market for the U.S. variety is exploding, with the demand strong year-round, not just at New Year’s. American exports of live or processed lobster to China climbed from $2.1 million in 2009 to $90.5 million in 2014, federal statistics show. China took about 12 percent of U.S. lobster exports in 2014, up from 0.6 percent in 2009. Chinese New Year is on the verge of becoming Maine’s second-biggest lobster shipping week of the year, behind Christmas week, according to industry officials. \=\

“For the Chinese, the preferred way of enjoying lobster is to cook it in plain water and then dip the pieces in soy sauce and wasabi. Another popular way is to braise it with green bean vermicelli noodles in garlic sauce, said Lv Hui, the cook in charge of the daily buffet at the Auspicious Garden. Wang Kang, a marketing manager at Zhangzidao Group, a seafood distributor and processor in Shanghai, attributed lobster’s popularity in China to rising incomes. “That naturally means that people are buying more foreign luxury goods,” Wang said. \=\

Picking your own fresh seafood at Wal-Mart in China

Fugu (Puffer Fish) in China

Han Bingbin wrote in the China Daily, Fugu, or puffer fish, is a popular delicacy up and down the Yangtze River. The fish is officially banned for fear that diners may keel over after the meal because of careless cooks. But that has not stopped the eager gourmets, and Han Bingbin files this report on the game of culinary Russian roulette. [Source: Han Bingbin, China Daily, April 15, 2012]

“The cute-looking blowfish contains an intense poison known as tetrodotoxin that can paralyze a man in minutes and kill him in a couple of hours. The toxin is found in many parts of its body, including the blood, liver, eyes and gill, and a tiny amount of poison is enough to be lethal. That is why restaurant chefs must be impeccably trained to prepare the fish for consumption.

“But the risk of getting poisoned by this little blowfish has not deterred the gourmets. In fact, it has become part of the attraction. This "dauntless spirit" is reflected in a local idiom popular in the Yangtze delta:Risk your life for the sake of a plate of fugu.

“It was in May in Rugao, Jiangsu province. The chef had tasted the plate of red-roasted fugu and confidently pronounced it safe. What followed was a happy interlude during which Fan Kai, a doctor, and his group of friends enjoyed the tender and delicious seasonal treat. But just as they were about to leave, one in the group suddenly complained of dizziness and found his legs too numb to stand on. As they called for the ambulance, the victim started having breathing problems and collapsed. Dr Fan immediately started resuscitation, and the mouth-to-mouth rescue saved his friend's life. Not every fugu diner gets away with it. Every spring in the Yangtze River delta region, there are similar stories, and some with sad endings.

History and Attraction of Fugu in China

Han Bingbin wrote in the China Daily, It is said that the saying “Risk your life for the sake of a plate of fugu” originated from an expression by Song Dynasty (960-1279) master poet Su Shi when he first tasted the fish in Changzhou, Jiangsu province. He was so enamored by the fish that he dedicated several poems to its praise. Since then, fugu has become a symbol of spring treats in ancient poetry. Su Shi, or Su Dongpo as he is better known, was not the first to sing its praises.

“The earliest record of fugu consumption along the lower reaches of the Yangtze dates back still further to Shanhaijing, a collection of mythical legends written more than 4,000 years ago. Why such an age-old obsession with such a dangerous morsel?

Veteran Huaiyang cuisine chef Zhou Yixiang says there is an understandable reason. As the blowfish swims upstream from the deep seas to spawn in the Yangtze River in spring, the salt in its body is largely diluted by the sweet waters of the river. This process gives the fish meat a unique texture different from either freshwater or saltwater fishes. But to enjoy the special texture and taste of this delicacy, it needs the most expert preparation and care, Zhou emphasizes.

Preparation of Fugu in China

To prepare fugu the edible parts, usually the skin and meat, must be carefully separated from the internal organs. Then the backbone has to be broken to let out the blood, all the while under running water. The fish must next be soaked in fresh water for around 10 minutes to rinse away any remaining blood. Before finally serving the fugu, the chef also has to taste it first to make sure it is safe to eat.

“In the past, a long-term reputation was necessary to build one's credibility as an expert fugu chef. These days, however, safety is more regulated and authorized fugu chefs must be professionally trained and certificated before they are allowed to prepare the fish for diners. Qiu Yangyi, the secretary-general of the Yangzhou Cuisine Association, says the practice follows that in Japan, where apprentice fugu chefs must train with veterans for a couple of years and then sit for examinations. In China, the training period is much shorter.

“In Jiangsu, arguably the original hub of China's fugu-eating tradition, Qiu says the "experience has been passed down for hundreds of years at the cost of numerous lives". Training under the Jiangsu Cuisine Association lasts about a week. During that period, experienced blowfish chefs along with aquaculture experts train young chefs, who must have at least an intermediate cook's certificate. The trainees are taught the various habitats and categories of fugu, the butchering techniques as well as the treatment and antidotes for the poison.

‘since 2007, the association has trained more than 600 chefs. They still have to undergo annual reviews, and the results are updated on the association's website for public reference. But the certification is non-governmental. Legally, at least, no institution in Jiangsu is permitted to certify fugu chefs, says Peng Dongsheng, deputy chairman of the Jiangsu Cuisine Association.

“The central government still considers fugu eating too much of a risk and has officially banned it from "entering the market" in the 1990-issued "arrangement on fisheries hygiene and safety". That same rule was later emphasized in several other national regulations and warnings. In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, restaurants found selling fugu will immediately receive a fine or even have their business licenses suspended. But in Jiangsu, where eating fugu is still a traditional seasonal highlight, the hygiene department has sort of "turned a blind eye", says Qiu from Yangzhou.

Wild Fugu and Fugu Farming in China

Japanese-style fugu sashimi
With its local popularity and an influx of curious diners from all across the country, the province now consumes nearly 10,000 metric tons of fugu each year according to Peng from Jiangsu Cuisine Association. What makes it different is that fugu on the market today are mainly farm-raised.

“Even the wild blowfish has fallen victim to rapid industrialization up and down the Yangtze with its growing number of ports and harbors, Qiu says. The tidal flats and sandbanks along the lower reaches of the Yangtze - the natural spawning grounds for the blowfish - are also fast disappearing.

“True gourmets lament the shrinking harvests of wild fugu. It has grown so rare that a total catch of about 100 wild fishes is already considered a surprisingly good catch. This has pushed the price of wild fugu to more than 20,000 yuan ($3,180) per kilogram.

“This has prompted the rise of fugu farming in the province. At least a few cities in Jiangsu, including Yangzhong and Hai'an, have made fugu farming a star industry. In Yangzhong, an island city in the middle of the Yangtze River, the government has spent 50 million yuan establishing 20 fugu-rearing facilities. The city produces more than 1,000 metric tons of fugu a year, spawning a 10 million yuan industry.

“Though farm-raised fugu are generally considered to be less tasty, they are considerably safer. According to Peng from the Jiangsu Cuisine Association, the poisons inside fugu are derived mainly from the seaweeds they eat. So, through changing their food supply, "poison-control breeding" can effectively reduce the toxicity, reportedly by as much as 95 percent. "If properly prepared, these fugu can be guaranteed to be poison-free," Peng says. The ban on farm-raised fugu is out of date, he believes.

“In Japan, according to Reuters, the laws regulating strictly licensed fugu chefs in exclusive restaurants may now be relaxed. New regulations coming into effect from October will open up the trade to even restaurants without a license. But, the Chinese government remains cautious. In June 2012, in response to nationwide calls by fugu farmers to lift the ban on fugu eating, the State Food and Drug Administration issued a notice saying that "related departments are conducting research, and before policy adjustment, food service providers are strictly banned from preparing fugus".

“Peng agrees that the lifting of the ban must be carefully thought out, but he has a practical suggestion. He thinks the government should first lift the ban in regions where strictly trained chefs should be allowed to prepare and sell farm-raised fugu. If the experiment is successful, he says, it can be allowed in the rest of the country. "Fugu preparation techniques are part of Chinese culinary culture," he insists. "We shouldn't give up making innovations for fear of trouble. What we have to do is to safely offer the delicacy to our consumers. In the long run, it'll be a huge contribution to China's culinary scene.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, hairy crabs from the China Daily

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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