It can be all too easy to stick to your culinary comfort zone in Shanghai, be it KFC or gōngbǎo jīdīng. As a challenge to break these habits and avoid the rut, every few weeks Shanghaiist will explore one of the more intriguing options out of China’s endless array of curious cookery. Although bizarre to most Western palates, these oft-avoided edibles usually boast unique medicinal properties, nutritional benefits, and intriguing culinary histories. We’ll explore for you where they came from and where you can sample these rare eats for yourselves.
CROCODILE (鳄鱼, è yú)
Tasted at: Banyan Harbor Seafood Restaurant // 2115 Jinshajiang Lu, Wanzhen Lu, Putuo District (金沙江路2115号, 近万镇路). Tel: (0)21-5269-1677/5269-3677. Reserve online here. Closest metro stop: South Qilianshan Road (祁连山南路) line 13.
Upmarket Cantonese restaurants are known for teeming with so different sea critters you could film a Blue Planet special in them. But Banyan Harbor Seafood Restaurant takes the exotica to the next level with crocodile, whose scaly arms, head and tail, are displayed on ice next to the fish.
“Crocodile consumption in China” might conjure up images of wild-caught crocs in cages being smuggled through quarantine, but Banyan Harbor’s specimens are bred on farms like chickens. They live in an enclosure similar to their aquarium compatriots, and are even hand-fed live chickens during crocodile shows (at some farms), before it’s time to be turned into belts, wallets, Jimmy Choos, and what we came for, meat.
Croc tail, torso, and head on ice
You’ll find the gray-green, cobble-textured limbs, leery-eyed heads, and tails on ice at the back of the first floor of Banyan Harbor. Yeah, they look out of place in a room as grand as the Hilton lobby, like they’re part of a complimentary hotel buffet. We pictured a barrel of crocodile feet with a scoop stuck in it out front of a swamp shack. But we digress.
The upper torso and tail meat (尾巴, wěi ba) run you 188RMB per jin, though you can only buy the tail whole. Only get this if you’re in a party of five or more people, this seemingly runty croc is deceptively meaty.
The head’s fairly pricey at 288-300RMB, especially seeing how the jaw bone comprises most of the weight. Apparently croc noggin is an effective cure for tuberculosis and other lung ailments. Yet another example of how the Chinese will do anything to improve their respiratory systems – all except stop smoking three packs of unfiltered Red Golden Dragons a day.
Most expensive are the forelegs (爪, zhuǎ), which clock in at around 218RMB per jin, about 450-500RMB for one webbed paw. If you haven’t noticed, the Chinese have kind of a culinary foot fetish. Both the head and forelegs require you to reserve one or two days in advance. We opted for both. Now cooking croc hide is like cooking a Dolce handbag; it takes about 40 minutes to an hour before it becomes remotely edible. Makes sense, they’re literally cut from the same cloth.
The braised foot looks like this……
Not what you had in mind, right? If it weren’t for that telltale pebbled skin, you’d think it was any old beef and broccoli that you’d eat of a Chinese takeout carton in front of the TV at 3am. Banyan Harbor doesn’t have the flair for the dramatic like we’ve seen at other Cantonese palaces, which like putting the whole paw on a plate like it’s part of a reptilian ransom note.
Fortunately the flavor’s quite good; like a combination of pork and frog with a thicker fish skin. Seeing how crocodiles split their time between land and water, the pork-fish marriage actually makes perfect sense.
That’s the head soup (above), which resembles a bowl of pond scum. It comes with the medicinal rhizome, gastrodia root (天麻根, tiānmá gēn), stock simmered down from pork bones, and the crocodile teeth, which float to the top when you dip a spoon in.
Unlike the foot, the flesh on the head is a dead ringer for pork, and is freaking phenomenal. Well, except for the teeth, which’ll slit your tongue if you’re not careful, and harbor grit and detritus beneath the gum line from all the croc’s past victims. Oh, and once in while you’ll bite down on a bony epidermal scale lurking beneath the gelatinous skin.
Coupons for a croc head soup (top) and croc foot (bottom)
Along with turtle, crocodile was probably the most intriguing reptile we’ve eaten in Shanghai. It boasts several different flavors and textures, and is thankfully nothing those other-white-meat alligator ribs US Southern folk slap on their Foreman grills.
Mind you, this experience is not cheap. Not including side fare and drinks, it’ll likely run you slightly south of 800RMB for 2-3 people. Funny story, actually. Banyan Harbor’s manager apparently reveres my exotic foods fixer, so he gave us two “crocodile” coupons: one for a free crocodile head, and one for a free crocodile head, good until April 30.
You can find a Banyan Harbor branch in almost every Shanghai district, but we prefer the Putuo one due to its relatively (and I mean relatively for a ritzy Cantonese establishment) agreeable prices on croc meat.