Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina has Lionel Messi, and Egypt are hoping Mohamed Salah will bring them World Cup glory.
China may not have qualified for football’s showcase event but an unlikely national hero has emerged nonetheless, carrying the hopes of the nation into the tournament as it kicks off in Russia tonight: the humble crayfish.
In a bid to reverse a decline in overseas demand, a train carrying 100,000 crayfish recently left the central Chinese city of Wuhan for Moscow, according to the official news agency, Xinhua.
Pre-cooked in garlic and spices, the small red crustaceans are bound for the Russian capital’s bars and restaurants, where it is hoped they will prove a knockout with football fans from all corners of the globe. At home crayfish have become a firm match-day favourite among young spectators.
The goal of the train delivery is to put a delicacy that has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity among China’s millennials firmly on the world culinary map.
On the domestic front, restaurants, bars and food delivery firms across the country have been stocking up in preparation for an expected spike in demand among young Chinese who love nothing more to watch the football with friends and family while snacking on crayfish washed down with cold beer.
“World Cup plus beer and crayfish is a perfect combo for Chinese diners,” said Zhu Danpeng, an associate with the China Branding Research Institute.
Zhu expects the whole crayfish market to breach 300 billion yuan this year on the back of the surging demand during the World Cup.
Companies have been quick to cash in.
Hemafresh, a supermarket chain under Alibaba Group Holdings – which owns the South China Morning Post – announced that it will add special night time delivery services for crayfish during the World Cup. Food delivery app Ele.me – bought by Alibaba from Baidu this year for a reported US$9.5 billion – is rolling out discounts for crayfish and beer at the restaurants listed on its platform during the World Cup period. Ele.me excepts there to be a jump in crayfish consumption during the month-long football bonanza.
While the domestic market for crayfish – which translates from Chinese literally as “little lobster” – has enjoyed rude health in the last three years, exports have fallen. Shipments of crayfish from China to overseas destinations dropped 17.9 per cent to 19,300 tonnes in 2017, according to data from the country’s customs service.
As such, the recent mass export of 100,000 crayfish to Moscow, while relatively small in scale, is an important step for Chinese retailers testing the water in new markets abroad. Traditionally, Russia itself has not been a major importer of Chinese crayfish.
The trainload of crayfish to the Russian capital was jointly launched by Cuntao – a commerce platform aimed specifically at China’s rural residents, and run by Alibaba – and the China National Agricultural Development Group.
In China, the crayfish has undergone an impressive change of public image.
Once the scourge of rice farmers, the industry has grown at a staggering pace to become a US$42 billion business that provides jobs for more than 5 million people, according to China’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. It is the world’s largest producer of crayfish, with annual output accounting for over 70 per cent of the world’s total.
The total output of crayfish-related businesses – from production to deliveries and restaurant dining – rocketed by 83 per cent to 268.5 billion yuan (US$42 billion) last year from 146.6 billion yuan in 2016, according to an annual report on the sector released by the ministry on Wednesday.
Most of the revenues were derived from the dining segment, which contributed 200 billion yuan, more than 70 per cent of the total, with the rest coming from crayfish breeding and processing.
Originally imported by Japanese traders to the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing as food for bullfrogs in the 1920s, but tracing their roots back to southern US state such as Louisiana, crayfish used to be an insurmountable foe to local rice farmers whose terraced fields were frequently razed by the crawling burrowers, making it impossible to grow crops.
The crustacean invaders are now wreaking the same kind of havoc across ecosystems in Africa. But in China they went from “most hated” to “most sought-after” during the 1990s, when people started simmering them with abundant spices and turning them into a culinary delicacy.
Now the red creatures, often soaked in chilli and pepper, are one of the favourite items on dinner tables of Chinese millennials. They are particularly popular in the summer, when they can be washed down with a refreshing beer.
As such, the ministry predicts that demand for crayfish will eventually reach around 1.9 million tonnes, presenting a mouth-watering opportunity for companies wishing to cash in. Last year, about 1.1 million tonnes of crayfish were produced through aquaculture – the farming of fish, crustaceans and other marine creatures.
“Demand for crayfish is greater than supply, and that will continue for the next couple of years,” said Zhu. “By 2020, the industry could enter into a more stabilised period.”
The bright red creatures are mostly served at street stalls night markets in some of the country’s biggest cities including Beijing and Shanghai, while some food giants have also caught on. Hong Kong-listed braised duck neck producer Zhou Hei Ya, for example, started selling packaged crayfish online and in its stores across the country earlier this year.