People in Hefei, like me, sometimes struggle when asked about the best local cuisine. But at this time of the year, the answer is easy. Nine out of 10 locals will say: "Try the crayfish food court and you will not be disappointed!"
Considered a must in summertime life in Hefei, crayfish begins to appear in markets in spring, usually in March. The popular crayfish food court is in Ningguo Road, which is dotted with about 20 restaurants serving crayfish cooked in five or six different ways.
Before 2000, the street was an ordinary mix of small Internet cafes and grocery stores. Then a crayfish restaurant named Lao Xie, owned by a man surnamed Xie, moved to the street and attracted many guests for the tasty crayfish it serves.
At that time, the restaurant was no more than a sidewalk snack stand. During weekends, there were so many guests that the restaurant had to put extra tables along the roadside and serve outside.
"Summer, especially May and June, is the best time to taste crayfish," said Zhang Jiaping, now also an owner of the store.
The city has hosted a weeklong Crayfish Festival every May or June since 2002. During that week, most crayfish restaurants would put seats and tables on the roadside, so visitors and locals can make new friends while enjoying crayfish and beer. This year the festival will begin in early July.
Most crayfish restaurants start getting busy at around 6 pm, and things are hopping until about 4 in the morning. Midnight may be the most popular hour to enjoy crayfish. Zhang fondly recalls last year's football World Cup, when fans gathered at crayfish restaurants and stayed up late to watch the games. The restaurant put up two TVs, one inside and the other outside, so people could have crayfish and beer while watching football.
"When the street first flourished with crayfish, there were only two ways of cooking: spicy, or not spicy," Zhang said, "Nowadays people's taste varies a lot."
Today the options include fried, braised, stewed and very spicy. The red, well-cooked crayfish are served in a basin with sour sauce and spicy sauce for dipping. Most people would prefer spicy options, as this is reckoned to be the classic taste of crayfish.
Eating crayfish is considered to be quite an effort, because very likely you will get your hands messy with the gravy. Watch out for your clothes! Most restaurants now provide guests with plastic gloves to help you keep clean during the gluttony.
Cold dishes served with the crayfish have also become more varied, including honey lotus root and tofu mixed with preserved eggs to balance the spicy taste of crayfish. And many crayfish restaurants such as Lao Xie have been refurbished with air conditioners, well-decorated seats and private booths.
This year, crayfish did not appear in the markets until mid-April because of the cold weather. When I left the food court at 8 pm on April 23, the street has just begun its busiest time as more people walked into the neon lights to enjoy the night's summer delicacy.
The street awaited another sleepless, spicy night.