Xiǎo lóng xiā
There are two kinds of carnivores: those who are okay with reminders that what they are eating was a living animal and those who prefer their prey filleted or pattied beyond recognition. Not really a judgment of the latter carnivore species. Let’s face it, the division of labor and highly refined modes of food distribution have really taken the edge off our predatory instincts. Heck, I have never hunted, skinned, or butchered anything I’ve ever eaten, but I will get my hands dirty now and then, especially if it means being up to my elbows in carapaces at the end of the meal.
Xiǎo lóng xiā is a local delicacy that is in season. Literally translated as “little lobster,” they are better known in muckier parts of the States as crawdaddies. Unlike its Cajun cuisine cousin, xiǎo lóng xiā is not cooked in Old Bay, but rather in a rich spicy broth which has as its secret ingredient, as is so often the case, cinnamon. It’s fragrant and succulent and served by the steaming bowl full.
Tonight was my second night in a row eating xiǎo lóng xiā. Last night my co-workers and I ventured out with our project’s sponsor, an ex-pat, specifically in search of the dish. He seemed like a man with a mission – or at least a man with a stomach with a mission – and we are always happy to eat. We didn’t know exactly where we were going, but a rough vicinity sufficed. We headed for an area of Nanjing called Lion’s Bridge, a pedestrian street which has, as far as I could tell, nothing except neon and restaurants: Chinese, Japanese, Thai, milk tea shops, skewered meat stands, KFC, as long as it can be eaten its sold there. Not a single storefront is wasted on lowly inedible wares.
The client, not overly familiar with Nanjing, used a time-tested formula for seeking out food that is tasty and reasonably authentic: walk down a side street, look for patrons who look local, and never under any circumstances consider the standards of sanitation beyond what you can see. Try that formula out. It works.
Zhongshan Lu (I quickly abandoned the notion of actually knowing the names of the places where I eat. I now just hope for menus with pictures. I much prefer pointing over mime as a means for ordering food.) that is known (famous?) for it’s xiǎo lóng xiā. Given the size of the group, we ordered far more than that – duck, goose legs, incredibly silky tofu, some delicious green, fish with black bean sauce, winter melon soup, fish balls with black mushrooms, pepper steak – but the four or five bowls of crawfish were the centerpiece.
Oh, was it good. The spice of the broth seemed to permeate the shells and flavor the tail meat far better than last night. And you can just dip the unsheathed tail back in the broth anyway. These were not unsubstantial for crawfish either. They were not quite holding up the xiǎo end of the “little lobster” formula. They were big enough to make the claws worth plundering, usually more a lobster eater’s undertaking than a crawfish diner’s, but as I don’t know how to say “medium” in Chinese I won’t attempt to rename them. I will, however, let you meet them.