Chengdu Challenge #18: Mala Crawfish Boil (Mala Xiao Longxia)
Let the Good Times Roll~~
It’s crawfish season in the U.S. South, and that can mean only one thing (to me): It’s time to try the Mala Crawfish recipe in Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English. I love a good New Orleans-style crawfish boil—where they boil the crawdads in a spicy broth, mound them up on a newspaper-covered table and invite you to dig in for the feast—so I figured Sichuan crawfish had to be just as fun and delicious.
While Louisiana farms the vast majority of crawfish eaten in the world, Asia has its own crawfish species, and Sichuan has many rivers and waterways, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that they eat them too. They are called xiao longxia, little lobsters, in Chinese. (And the direct translation of longxia is dragon shrimp, so they are little dragon shrimp. Isn’t Chinese grand?)
You don’t find crawfish in Nashville, so I went to Whole Foods, the only real place to buy fish/shellfish here. Unfortunately, the fishmonger told me, crawfish don’t live up to WF’s sustainability standards. Never mind. I then realized WF doesn’t sell any live seafood anyway. (It stopped selling live lobster in 2006.)
He suggested I get mine where he gets his, from a truck in East Nashville. They drive them up direct from the Louisiana Gulf every Thursday night, and you can pick the little critters up on Friday for your weekend crawfish boil. Perfect.
I called to place an order in advance, and, since I’ve never made crawfish before, asked the owner how much to get. He said 2 to 5 pounds per person is the norm. That’s a lot of crawfish, but anyone who’s eaten them knows you only get a small bite of meat out of each tail, so I settled on 6 pounds for the three of us.
A week later, I got the squirmy little mudbugs home ok, but panicked when I realized I wasn’t sure if I could keep them alive for a day, and decided to cook them immediately. And that’s when I actually read the recipe I intended to follow: It called for only 1 pound of crawfish, because you are supposed to 1) kill them; 2) quickly deep-fry them; and 3) finish them off in a spicy stir-fry sauce.
Oops! I couldn’t deep-fry and stir-fry dozens and dozens of crawfish in a home wok. Plus, it didn’t tell me how to kill them! Clearly I had to adapt. And that’s when the Mala Crawfish Boil was born. Why couldn’t I just stick with my crawfish boil plan, using the Louisiana cooking method with the Sichuan spices? And why couldn’t I just use a modified Sichuan hotpot broth, which is, after all, meant for boiling all manner of foods and creatures?
While a Louisiana spice mix would feature cayenne pepper, coriander, black pepper, allspice, oregano, bay leaf and sundry other dried herbs and spices, the Sichuan would feature mala—dried chili peppers and Sichuan peppercorn—as well as star anise, bay leaf and Sichuan specialties including Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang), preserved black beans (douchi) and preserved mustard green stems (yacai). The road starts at a common point—chilies, garlic, bay leaf, celery—then diverges to the Southern U.S. or Southern China. Makes sense to me!
So the ingredients here are a cross between the cookbook’s mala crayfish recipe and its mala hotpot recipe. And the cooking instructions are a cross between my crawfish monger’s and an Alton Brown recipe. And, if I do say so myself, it’s brilliant!
Actually, my husband and daughter said it too. Craig is a huge fan of a crawfish boil, and he thought this one ranked as high as any he’s had. Fong Chong eats most any fish, so we figured she’d dig it too. We sat on our back deck for the first time this spring, crawfish piled high on a newspaper-covered picnic table under a string of lights, and dug in.
Fong Chong did take some coaxing, however, since crawfish do look like big bugs. And if that wasn’t bad enough, we told her that after she peeled and ate the tail meat she needed to suck the head. She did. And she liked it. But not as much as she likes river snails, or chicken feet, or pig feet, or stinky tofu. Proving once again that weird is in the eye—and palate—of the beholder.
Of course I know the real reason she ate so many of them: She’ll eat anything bathed in a hot and numbing sauce. And so will I.
In case, like me, you don’t fully read recipes before you shop, this recipe is for 3 pounds of crawfish, enough for two people if you have sides. Do not try to cook a second batch of crawfish in the same pot of broth—as we did—as there’s not enough flavor left for the second round. Use extra pots with extra batches of seasoning if you plan to cook more than 3 pounds.
Also, next time I will make a second pot of the seasoned broth to cook small potatoes and corn on the cob to serve with the crawfish like they do in NOLA. There wasn’t room in my pot for everything, but if you have a pot big enough you can put the vegetables in the boiling broth for about 10 minutes before you add the crawfish and then cook them together for a full feast.
About cleaning: There are various places on the Web to find information about cleaning and “purging” the crawfish with water and salt before you cook them. I called my seller to ask about it, and he said purging wasn’t necessary or even recommended, and I also read that on the websites of other sellers. Our crawdads had been farmed and seemed clean, so we just gave them a few rinses. If your crawfish are dirty or muddy, you’ll need to wash them thoroughly in several changes of water.
Lastly, I fully confess to having my husband handle these squirmy, pinchy creatures—and especially their final seconds heading into the pot. Cooking live crawdads is not without its challenges.
- ¼ cup peanut or canola oil
- 1½ cups (40 grams) dried, medium-hot red chili peppers (preferably Chinese)
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
- ½ cup Pixian chili bean paste (douban jiang)
- 6-8 scallions, cut in sections
- 2 tablespoons sliced ginger
- 2 star anise
- 1 bay leaf
- Optional additional spices such as cao guo (black cardamom), cassia bark, fennel
- 2 tablespoons Sichuan preserved mustard greens (yacai)
- 2 tablespoons preserved black beans (dou chi)
- 2 tablespoons chili flakes (Chinese or Korean)
- 10 cups chicken stock and/or water
- 3 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons ground, roasted Sichuan pepper
- Salt to taste
- 4 whole, peeled garlic cloves
- 2-3 stalks celery including leaves, cut in sections
- 3 pounds live crawfish
- Add ¼ cup oil to a large soup/stock pot and heat over a low flame. Add chili peppers and whole Sichuan peppercorns and stir-fry until fragrant. Add chili bean paste, scallions, ginger, star anise, bay leaf and any additional spices and cook briefly to bring out their aroma. Stir in yacai, preserved black beans and chili flakes.
- Add the 10 cups stock (or water or combination of the two), turn up the heat and bring to a boil. Add Shaoxing wine, sugar, ground Sichuan pepper and salt and mix well. Add the garlic cloves and celery and, finally, the live crawfish.
- Boil crawfish for about 3 minutes (or more if they are large). Turn off heat, cover pot and let crawfish soak up the spicy seasoning for about 30 minutes. Fish crawfish out of the water to a serving platter and dig in!