Now on the menu in Beijing for Chinese New Year – lots of American lobster.
Exports of US lobster to China have rocketed in the past few years, largely to satisfy the appetites of the communist country’s growing middle class, to whom a steamed, whole crustacean – flown in live from the US – is not just a festive delicacy and a good-luck symbol but also a mark of prosperity.
In Maine, the largest producer in the US, the lobster boom has kept shippers and processors busy during the usually quiet midwinter months.
For Stephanie Nadeau, owner of The Lobster Co, a wholesaler in Arundel, Maine, the demand has meant 14-hour nights spent stuffing wriggling lobsters into crates so they can reach China in time for the Lunar New Year, which falls tomorrow.
She said she sends 100,000lb a week to China at this time of year.
“There’s lot of orders, lots of demand right now – it is a race to get them there for Chinese New Year,” Ms Nadeau said.
On the other side of the world, every morning at 9am, the Auspicious Garden restaurant in Beijing receives 800 lobsters that have just crossed the Pacific aboard a cargo plane.
In the evening, hundreds of diners fill the two-storey restaurant in the gigantic Pangu Seven Stars Hotel for an £50 all-you-can-eat buffet with New England lobster as the main attraction.
Xu Daqiang, a 35-year-old businessman on a romantic date with his girlfriend, said food-safety concerns in China make him choose expensive high-class restaurants where he can find imported seafood.
Cao Lijun, a 24-year-old Shanghai resident celebrating her friend’s birthday, alluded to lobster’s reputed aphrodisiac properties.
“How to say it?” she said. “It makes my husband healthier. Really, this is what we say, because it is high in proteins.”
Lobsters and other foods seen as luxuries are popular at Lunar New Year and other festive occasions. The bright red of a cooked lobster is considered lucky, as it resembles a dragon.
China also imports lobsters from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, but the market for the US variety is exploding, with the demand strong year-round, not just at New Year.
American exports of live or processed lobster to China climbed from £1.4 million in 2009 to £59m in 2014, federal statistics show. China took about 12 per cent of exports in 2014, up from 0.6 per cent in 2009.
For the Chinese, the preferred way of enjoying lobster is to cook it in plain water and then dip the pieces in soy sauce and wasabi.
Another popular way is to braise it with green bean vermicelli noodles in garlic sauce, said Lv Hui, the cook in charge of the daily buffet at the Auspicious Garden.
Wang Kang, a marketing manager at Zhangzidao Group, a seafood distributor and processor in Shanghai, attributed lobster’s popularity in China to rising incomes.
New England lobstermen have been recording epic catches in recent years. Maine, which accounts for more 80 per cent of all US lobster, hauled in more than 250 million lb in 2012-13, the highest two-year total in the record books, which go back to the 1800s.
Chinese New Year is on the verge of becoming Maine’s second-biggest lobster shipping week of the year, behind Christmas week, according to industry officials.