An International Symposium on
Travelling Cuisines: Culinary Politics and Transnational Foodways in and out of Asia

Making Crayfish Local: From Exoticism to Localism

Sidney C. H. Cheung, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

This article aims to explain the rise of crayfish eating in New Orleans, United States and Nanjing, China from the global perspectives of food production and consumption. Being local has different meanings such as traditional, home-made, seasonal and small scale production, and I would like to track down the path of how exotic ingredients were turned into local food catered for outsiders as well as tourists. Of these, the study of red swamp crayfish (Procambarus clarkii) both in the New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) and Xuyi, Jiangsu (XYJS) provides an interesting case showing the relevant transformations in the two different countries in many parallel ways regarding their socio-cultural development. Based on my recent fieldtrip to New Orleans, Louisiana, I found the rise of crayfish farming only taken place since the late 1960s, and before that, all crayfish was wild, caught from bayou and drainage. When I asked local people about the origin of crayfish dishes and how and why it became popular and boomed in Louisiana, I often got the answer that crayfish eating has a long history and it had become a common dish because crawfish is essentially delicious; therefore, I would like to bring in the emotional attachment of local people to crayfish, which symbolizes an identity as well as a sense of belonging, but more importantly, as an anthropologist I aim to learn how the changing individual taste is related to the social and political environment. In the Chinese context, P. clarkii was brought to Nanjing by Japanese in the 1930s though the reason is still unclear. The Chinese in the Jiangsu area did not welcome it since it ate crops and fishes and did not bring benefits to the people there. For a long time, no one paid attention to it, and the emergence of the dish called ‘Nanjing little lobster’ did not appear until the early 1990s; yet its rapid growth in popularity was not limited to Nanjing but extended to big cities such as Shanghai and Beijing. However, with the establishment of local museum and annual international festival, the crayfish dishes became a famous local food for outsiders as well as tourists visiting the city with various interests.

Sidney C. H. Cheung received his anthropological training in Japan, and is currently Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Anthropology in The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has carried out field research in Japan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Southeast Asia and Louisiana, and published his research on visual anthropology, anthropology of tourism, cultural heritage, food and identity in journals such as: Visual Anthropology, International Journal of Heritage Studies, Annals of Tourism Research, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, MUSEUM International, Asian Studies Review, etc.; and his co-edited books include Tourism, Anthropology and China (White Lotus 2001), The Globalization of Chinese Food (Routledge Curzon and University of Hawaii Press 2002), Food and Foodways in Asia: Resource, Tradition and Cooking (Routledge 2007), and The Conference Proceedings of Foodways and Heritage : A Perspective of Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage (Department of Anthropology, CUHK and Hong Kong Heritage Museum, LCSD-HK (2013).