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American lobster: The new Chinese New Year delicacy

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 so they can reach China in time for the Lunar New Year, which falls on Thursday this year. 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. “It is a race to get them there for Chinese New Year.”

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.

Cao Lijun, a 24-year-old Shanghai resident celebrating her friend’s birthday in a party of four, alluded to lobster’s reputed aphrodisiac properties when she said with a half-laugh: “How to say it? 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 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 no meaty claws like the American variety.