love seafood, always have. From smoked haddock poached in milk, to kippers for breakfast and cockles on the beach. Growing up in a fishing town may also have helped. So, when I land in Tianjin, famous for all sea things, it’s not surprising I enjoy a day out at the quay-side, gorging on plates of shell fish.
And you really get mountains of it. Different shaped, sized and coloured shells; spicy or steamed. Shrimps, octopus and some unusual stuff like starfish and sea cucumbers. Seafood is where my heart, my natural inclinations lie.
But, I don’t like crabs. I thought it was because of the amount of effort required to extract the small morsels of meat. A logical reluctance to expend more effort getting the food than the calories gained from eating it. It’s the same with eating rice with chopsticks. Its ok when you can shovel a pile in your mouth, but I can’t be bothered when you get down to the last few grains, picking them out of the bottom of the bowl.
But it’s more than that. It’s the fiddling around, peeling and snapping off bits of shell. The sucking and nibbling, the poking around inside the body and digging out unnamed organs. You need a knowledge to identify the poisonous parts, and the areas to look, to prise and to poke the creature’s cavities. To have these skills is a little seedy, to be so intimate with the innards of an animal is immoral, bestial.
The dockside meal, with the traditional Baijiu, in the waning autumn sun was nice. Eating the hard won fruits of a tough and endangered profession. Eating it fresh at the quayside, with the smell of the sea, no middlemen, no tanks or freezers. It is an unpretentious egalitarian meal, shared with old comrades under the ships red flags, a few simple small dishes.
Later, I am treated to another seafood meal at a restaurant. This time the meal is predominantly crabs – river and sea. It must have been expensive, so I felt obliged to dig in. I bravely battle my aversions and manage to violate a good half dozen, as well as sushi salmon, oysters, some fish head dish (mostly bones in a sticky sauce), the alien pipixia creatures and a plate of shrimp. I did my duty, pleased the host, upheld tradition, showed respect for culture; all celebrated with rounds of Baijiu.
As the toasts mounted, I noticed a hierarchy among the crabs. Something about their appearance, their colour, the size of their claws, their bearing even after being boiled, that gives them a social status. I feel it in the strength of armor and size of forearms. The sea crabs, occupying the further plate have developed large, fierce pincers that are superior weapons, a mark of rank. Their beady black eyes, sunken deep into the shells for protection, give an oppressive, cold, steely strength – they’re a better class of crab. The river crabs are smaller, visibly weaker, their front limbs have a patch of green hair like the armbands of red guards. Breaking open the high-born sea crabs with nut crackers should be appealing, crushing the leaders and making reparation for their past tyrannies. But the act has no sense of revolution, or revenge.
The nutcrackers are efficient at extracting chunks of white meat. The crab army steadily shrinks under our relentless assault. The table becomes littered with their broken shells and splintered limbs. The waste of war made more tragic by the billion years of evolution that perfected its whole-body exoskeleton, defeated by a net and a pair of sticks. We gorge on the fat flesh of the battlefield, use our specialist tools on the dead like Nazi surgeons.
We leave the table, no appetite for more. I love seafood and Baijiu, but I’ve consumed enough of both for today