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American lobster: The new Chinese New Year delicacy

Patrick Whittle
Associated Press

Portland, Maine — Now on the menu in Beijing for Chinese New Year: lots and lots of American lobster.

Exports of U.S. 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 United States — is not just a festive delicacy and a good-luck symbol, but also a mark of prosperity.

And that’s good news for Maine, far and away the nation’s No. 1 lobster state, where the boom has put more money in the pockets of lobstermen and kept shippers and processors busy during the usually slack 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. She said she sends 100,000 pounds a week to China this time of year.

“There’s lot of orders, lots of demand right now,” Nadeau said.

On the other side of the world, every morning at 9, 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-story restaurant in the gigantic Pangu Seven Stars Hotel for a nearly $80 all-you-can-eat buffet with the New England specialty as the main attraction.

Xu Daqiang, a 35-year-old businessman who was at the restaurant for the first time 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.

Lobsters and other foods seen as luxuries are popular this time of year — the Chinese New Year was last week —and other festive occasions. The bright red of a cooked lobster is considered lucky, as is its resemblance to a dragon.

China also imports lobsters from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, but the market for the U.S. variety is exploding, with the demand strong year-round, not just at New Year’s.

American exports of live or processed lobster to China climbed from $2.1 million in 2009 to $90.5 million in 2014, federal statistics show. China took about 12 percent of U.S. lobster exports in 2014, up from 0.6 percent in 2009.

American lobsters often appear on menus in China as “Boston lobster” and sell for $50 to $100 each in restaurants — expensive, but more affordable than the Australian rock lobster, which can cost hundreds of dollars and doesn’t have the big meaty claws of the American variety.

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.

“That naturally means that people are buying more foreign luxury goods,” Wang said. “Chinese people are also more concerned with healthy living, as well as foreign goods still being a new thing to them.”

New England lobstermen have been recording epic catches in recent years and are grateful for the business from the world’s second-largest economy. Maine, which accounts for more than 80 percent of all U.S. lobster, hauled in more than 250 million pounds in 2012-13, the highest two-year total in the record books, which go back to the 1800s.

Associated Press writers Paul Traynor in Shanghai and Aritz Parra in Beijing contributed to this report.