SHANGHAI - The Shanghai hairy crab, also known as the Chinese mitten crab, is considered a great delicacy in China. But, not so much in Germany where each year from late summer to early autumn mature Chinese mitten crabs begin their migration up the Elbe River.
As they travel to the North Sea to get ready for mating season, they are probably looking for a nice spot to spawn. These creatures can crawl 12 km a day sideways and are particularly good at digging. This makes them an invasive pest- and on top of that, they are sabotaging Germany’s dams. According to a World Wildlife Fund report, the crabs have caused 80 million euros worth of losses in Germany alone.
Since 2009, the hairy crabs have spread to Britain and Holland. The Europeans are hoping not to make the same mistakes as the Americans: when the Great Lakes were initially infested with Chinese carp, the Americans tried to poison them. The local species of fish died en masse but only one unlucky Chinese carp was affected.
Whereas the Chinese carp were actually introduced by America itself, the Chinese mitten crabs immigrated to Europe by ship. After the Opium Wars, when China was forced to open its ports and start trading with Europe these Yangtze River crabs packed their bags and climbed aboard the merchant ships headed for European waters. No doubt they waved a furry claw to their mothers.
According to the press, some Dutch towns are now paying a fortune for their residents to catch these illegal immigrants who sneak ashore in the night. Once caught, the crabs are sent to feed mills to be recycled into animal feed.
News of this has appalled Chinese connoisseurs so much, that many of them are thinking of organizing eating tours to Europe to eradicate the disaster. The Dutch tourism board in China has even come up with a new slogan calling on the Chinese to come to the Netherlands to eat hairy crabs. A novel idea of international fraternity!
Meanwhile, China itself is not without its own alien species invasion: American bullfrogs, tilapia, and apple snails. Luckily, Chinese people’s particularly tolerant taste buds and stomachs, as well as their omnivorous appetite help to avoid any potential ecological disaster. Only when the ghastly invader is really inedible, like saltmarsh cord grass and water hyacinth, or is truly unpalatable like the rampaging Brazilian tortoise, do the Chinese put down their chopsticks.
Urban legends with a side of racism
Overseas, it is a very difficult to try to explain what the Chinese consider as a delicacy without sounding a bit racist.
A while ago, an English newspaper reported that a Chinese restaurant’s business had plummeted because a client choked on a dog’s identification chip while dining there. This kind of urban legend abounds abroad. “I know a few English teachers who refuse to go to Chinese restaurants because they believe that these restaurants serve dog meat,” says Jiao Ling, a Chinese student who has lived in London for three years. “The prejudice against the Chinese is most commonly spread around through Chinese food,” she adds.
The British are extremely conservative about eating. In his book, “French Lessons,” Peter Mayle, an English author living in France, ridicules his boss who insisted on eating only fish and chips in a French restaurant. “Among my British friends, one left his Chinese girlfriend after seeing her eating intestines. To be fair I also have another friend who is particularly open-minded and who decided to eat spicy chicken claws with his Chinese girlfriend. He ended up with a bleeding mouth,” Jiao Ling says.
Many Chinese have never heard of “General Tso's Chicken.” This is not surprising, since this unsophisticated dish was invented in Taiwan in the 1970s. Today it’s the most popular Chinese dish in the U.S. and the UK. How can they have any insight about Chinese food if this is what they consider as the best Chinese dish?
Ruby who has lived in the U.S. for a long time recalls the first days when she arrived in Los Angeles and shared a house with Americans. When she put the bloody fish head that she had bought in Chinatown on a chopping board her housemate started screaming. For her American housemates, who never seemed to cook anything, anything with shell or bones was deemed too difficult to eat with a fork and knife and not elegant enough for the dining room table. They preferred to spend their time doing sports than cooking.
Calf thymus, Sea cucumber and Nile turtles
The French are probably the only other people in the world who share the same gourmet spirit as the Chinese. The number of outlandish ingredients in French cuisine is countless – for instance offal meat is mainstream. They are often cynical about the food at the other side of the English Channel. Apart from their famous foie gras, they also have the calf thymus, which is less well known: The French have a variety of delicacies with this ingredient that comes three-to-six-month-old calves, which are un-weaned and have not eaten any grass.
The ferocious Chinese appetite has also reached Africa. A friend who works for a Chinese state-owned company in Angola told me recently that the shallow seabed there is full of sea urchins and sea cucumber that the Africans do not eat. Every weekend, assisted by locals, Chinese workers get together to harvest these delicacies. You can dig a whole sack of abalone in half a day. Meanwhile in Sudan, a Chinese favorite is the hypertrophied Nile turtle.
Meanwhile back in Shanghai, I have seen foreigners shopping in Marks & Spencer buying boring tinned food while discussing their puzzlement over the flavor of the Hundred Year egg. In Beijing, I have also seen foreigners squatting around the tiny barbecue skewer shop in the alley like the locals and having a great time. This is the power of assimilation through food.