Title

Chinese Restaurants Are Still Some Of The Best Options For Local, Live Seafood

In the United States, it is estimated that up to 90% of the seafood that we consume is imported from abroad. And so if you’re looking for live, locally-sourced fish in California, Chinese restaurants are probably your best bet.

“Most of our live seafood, with the exception of crab and lobster, is locally sourced in California,” Gary Ye says. Ye is the owner of Lunasia, a Cantonese dim sum and seafood restaurant in Alhambra. He has been in the Chinese restaurant business for 30 years now and has kept his pulse on the ebb and flow of the seafood market during all of those years. Lunasia’s focus on local seafood isn’t unique; most Chinese seafood restaurants in Los Angeles have a section dedicated to live seafood. Whole, fresh fish is at the center of Chinese cuisine, especially for the people whose ancestry hail from coastal provinces.

“Chinese people here used be excited for live, whole catfish,” he says. “As long as it was fresh and alive, that’s all that mattered. Now because of rising incomes, more people want crab and lobster from Canada and Alaska.”

At Lunasia, spot prawns, rock cod, and thornyhead fish are all bought from California fishermen. The fish are kept in tanks and slaughtered just moments before they are sautéed or steamed. Customers must order the rock cod in advance because it is not guaranteed that the fish will be in stock.

Live fish are packed into a tank awaiting customers orders
Live fish are packed into a tank awaiting customers orders. | Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Chinese restaurants in California have always had a relationship with local fishermen. “In the early 1990s, Chinese restaurant seafood suppliers were buying live shrimp and fishes up and down the California coastline from the fishermen,” Sam Wong, a long-time Chinese restaurateur in Los Angeles says. At one point, a Chinese gang called the Wah Ching got involved and demanded the suppliers pay them a fee. “Those who refused to pay were beaten and gasoline was poured into their live fish tanks,” he says.

What used to be a consistent business is now more unreliable because of rising prices. 

“When I first started in this business, we’d have a consistently full tank of fish,” Ye says. “But now, local seafood is getting more expensive.” Ye cites competition from Chinese buyers in China.

As China’s income has risen, so has their appetite for fish from abroad. Because of overfishing, China has virtually no fish left in the East China Sea and yet, according to 2015 figures, China accounted for 35 percent of the world’s seafood consumption in 2015. The United States is currently China’s second-largest seafood supplier, after Russia.

“Some products have become so expensive because the Chinese in China are willing to pay more of them,” he says. “For example, right now I can’t get any sea cucumbers from my supplier in Mexico because they’ve been sold out to China.”

The California spiny lobster is another great example of this. It is estimated that 95% of all commercially-caught spiny lobsters in California are shipped directly to China. What used to be a $10 a pound commodity is now $30 a pound.

Spiny Lobster
Spiny lobster. | Photo: Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The amount of Chinese people in Los Angeles willing to pay the exorbitant prices of those luxury items pales in comparison to the Chinese people in China. Ye simply cannot compete. His lobster is sourced from Maine.

He stresses that the Chinese in America have different spending habits than the Chinese in China.

“In China they will use their business expense account and splurge on the luxury seafood items like lobster and crab. In America, they are more modest because they’ve adapted to the price levels here. They want a more reasonable price,” he says.

Story continues below

It is becoming nearly impossible for Ye to get his hands on the luxury seafood items that his Chinese customers prize: Pacific geoduck clam and Dungeness crab from Canada, rock lobster from Australia, and Alaskan king crab.

In Vancouver, for example, most of the Dungeness crabs are shipped directly to China to feed the crab-hungry dinner tables of Shanghai. Prices have nearly doubled, reaching up to $60 a pound.  

To cope with the unreliability of live seafood, Ye says most of his business is now focused on the dim sum portion of his menu, which utilizes frozen seafood. Unlike live seafood, which is usually U.S.-based, frozen seafood comes from all over the world and is significantly cheaper.

Frozen crabs
Frozen crabs. | Photo: eltpics/Flickr/Creative Commons License

“Most of my stuff comes from Latin America these days,” Sunny Wan says.

Wan is the owner of Swan Enterprise, a frozen seafood distributor to Chinese restaurants in America. He has a client base of up to 300 Chinese restaurants in California and 20 Chinese supermarkets. When he started in the business, twenty years ago, the majority of his fish came from China. Today, because of health scandal scares, nearly nothing is imported in from China. From Asia, he mostly sources from Malaysia, Vietnam, and Thailand. 

“Swai fillet is sourced from Vietnam,” he says. “Shrimp comes from Honduras.” He estimates that 80% of his shrimp is farm-raised and 20% comes from the wild.

Like Ye, Wan is an industry old-timer and has seen the growing appetite of the Chinese in China change the seafood market. “When I went to the Seafood Expo in Boston, I noticed that a lot of the vendors had hired Chinese-speaking staff to talk to the Chinese buyers.” 

Workers unload fish from the boat in Vietnam
Workers unload fish from the boat in Vietnam. |  Photo: Linh Pham/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Frozen seafood is on the rise among Chinese restaurants in America; it’s more affordable and profitable for the restaurateur.

But while live and local seafood is getting harder to obtain because of competitive prices and supply, Chinese restaurants will not be getting rid of that portion of their menu anytime soon.

“The best quality seafood in America is in our Chinese restaurants,” Ye says. “At the end of the day, Chinese people will eat anything as long as it is fresh.”

It’s a double-edged sword, really. In America, that means the Chinese restaurants are supporting the local fishermen. In China, it means that they have eaten everything under their oceans and are now looking to ours.

 

Top photo: star5112/Flickr/Creative Commons License

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading