Crawfish With a Kick
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d have sworn I was in New Orleans. I was up to my elbows in juicy, spicy crawfish, shelling them onto the table as I listened to the companiable chatter around me. But no. I was on a rumbling old train to Shanghai from Suzhou.
I’ve always connected crawfish with New Orleans. These mini-lobsters are the king of bayou country, thriving wild in the Atchafalaya Basin and farmed in freshwater ponds of Louisiana. I’ve eaten softshell versions deep-fried at the Praline Connection, and others steamed with Cajun spices at the counter of Acme Oyster Bar.
But on that train in China, I was eating them in a completely new way. It was late at night, and my friend Joanne and I had missed our train back to Shanghai from a daytrip to Suzhou. Desperate, we hopped onto the next train without seat assignments and pushed through the trash-filled aisles to take refuge in the almost-empty dining car. The train staff hanging out in the back tried to shoo us away, exclaiming that dinner service was over, but when Joanne explained that we just needed a place to sit, the workers agreed.
A few minutes later, as we listened to the train rumbling on its tracks, one of the train staff members surprised us by bringing over a steaming bowl of crawfish from the staff’s own late dinner. But the aromas from this crawfish were anything but Cajun. No breading, no Old Bay. This was Sichuan-style crawfish, cooked in a heady broth of chiles and Sichuan peppercorns on the branch.
Crawfish is popular in landlocked Sichuan province for the same reason it’s popular in Louisiana – both areas abound in freshwater fish and shellfish from rivers and ponds. In fact, with the pollution of many of Louisiana’s waterways from Hurricane Katrina, many New Orleans restaurants now import even more of their crawfish from China. The train’s cook had prepared the crawfish in a characteristically Sichuan “ma-la,” or “numbing-hot,” style, balancing the fiery heat of chiles with the tingling, “numbing” flavor of Sichuan peppercorns.
Even more delightful than our crawfish gift was the knowledge that these men had gathered together to eat a handmade meal, even at work, even on a rickety train. No take-out, no frozen, prefabricated meals.
And the crawfish were fabulous. We twisted off the tails, sucked juices out of the bodies. Soon, our table was littered with crawfish shells, beer bottles, and cups of tea. The train workers ate their fill of the meal and then came to chat with Joanne in Mandarin. All I really could do to thank my hosts was murmur “Xie xie,” and enjoy those crawfish with abandon.
And though crawfish season is drawing to its close, there’s still time to taste them “Chinese-train” style back in America. Momofuku Noodle Bar in the East Village often has Sichuan-spiced crawfish as a special, or you could rustle up some crawfish and make them at home. If you’re looking for a new take on Old Bay, this is it.
Crawfish are in season in America from February through June, but post-Katrina scarcity means that live, in-shell crawfish can be expensive (and hard to find). For the real thing, go tocajungrocer.com for overnight delivery of live crawfish. Otherwise, substitute the freshest shell-on shrimp you can find, or use frozen crawfish tail meat. Sichuan peppercorns are available at many gourmet food shops and specialty stores such as Kalustyan’s.
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 scallion, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or to taste
2 pounds live crawfish (substitute 1 1/4 pound large shell-on shrimp or 1 pound crawfish tails)
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon soy sauce
In a large skillet or wok, heat the oil over medium heat. Toss in the scallions and Sichuan peppercorns and stir until fragrant. Add the cayenne pepper and stir quickly once or twice.
Quickly add the crawfish, shrimp, or crawfish tails and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes. Add the Shaoxing rice wine and soy sauce, stir, reduce the heat to low and cover the skillet. Let the crawfish steam for 10 minutes (steam the shrimp or crawfish tails for 5 minutes), then transfer to a plate to serve. Serves 3 to 4.