What Are Crawfish And How Do You Eat Them?

Crayfish, crawfish, crawdads, mudbugs. The names are interchangeable, and they all refer to those tasty little critters that look like miniature lobsters. While they are related to lobsters, per Britannica, their taste is more of a mashup of lobster and shrimp. Crawfish have less of a salty bite to them, too, which makes sense given that most species live in fresh water.

More than 500 species of crawfish make their homes in lakes, rivers, and swamps, although a few of them are saltwater creatures. They range in color from yellow to dark brown. When you find them on the menu, they're probably white river or red swamp crayfish. (Despite its name, the white river variety is red with a black marking, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.)  Combined, these two crawfish types make up almost the entire commercial harvest in Louisiana, according to Houma Today.

How did crawfish get so many names? What you call the little crustacean depends largely on your location. While people from the northern U.S. tend to say crayfish, according to a Grammarly blog, you'll hear Louisianans saying "crawfish." People out west and around Oklahoma call them "crawdads," while "mudbugs" is the preferred term in the Mississippi Delta. 

There's no one way to prepare crawfish

Crawfish are enjoyed in a variety of ways around the world. The traditional Louisiana crawfish boil involves boiling andouille sausage, potatoes, onions, corn, and crawfish in the same pot (via Food & Wine). You might throw in peppers, asparagus, and garlic cloves, too. McCormick makes it easy to recreate the crawfish boil at home. On the company's website, you'll find Zatarain's Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil, a product that combines seven spices essential for this dish.

While people might think of Louisiana when they hear "crawfish," 90% of all the world's crawfish consumption happens in China, according to Goldthread. Dining on crawfish is a summertime social occasion in China, and the crustacean is found on the menu at China's Taco Bell and Pizza Hut restaurants. Here, chefs typically stir-fry their crawfish and spice them in a variety of ways, using garlic, salted egg yolk, or a mix called 13 spices that includes star anise, cinnamon, bay leaves, and cardamom.  

Swedes throw colorful outdoor crawfish parties in August, according to Sweden's official website. Crawfish in Sweden are cooked in brine with a lot of dill and eaten cold. Swedes pair their crawfish with a strong cheese and wash them down with beer or schnapps.

In Nigeria, crawfish are used as a spice, according to All Nigerian Recipes. They're baked in a hot oven until dry but not charred, then ground into a powder and used as a seasoning.

Crawfish are easy to eat once you know the tricks

No matter how much you try, shelling and eating crawfish is messy business. Diners may wear bibs, and you'll want to keep a stack of napkins handy.

The primary meat in crawfish is in the tail, though on larger critters you can also eat the claws. To get to the meat of the matter, Acadia Crawfish, purveyors of the Louisiana delicacy for three decades, offers on its website a step-by-step guide on how to peel and eat crawfish. Grab the creature at the head and the thickest part of the tail, and twist. Once the head and tail are separated, peel away a couple of the rings on the tail to expose the meat. Then pull the hunk of tail meat out, or save a step and suck the meat straight out of the tail. Once you have the method down, it's quick and easy.

Like chicken bones, leftover heads and tail shells can be used to make a flavorful stock after the pieces are rinsed to remove the seasonings used in the boil, according to We Are Not Foodies. More advice on leftovers comes from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which suggests making a crawfish butter because many of the crustacean's flavors are fat-soluble, not water-soluble. 

Live crawfish can be shipped anywhere in the U.S.

Now that you know how to eat crawfish, you should know that you can enjoy them anywhere in the U.S., no matter how far you live from the nearest crawdad hole. The website We Love Crawfish is your clearinghouse for all things related to getting your hands on crawfish. You can pick up some crawfish nets if you happen to have some of the critters in your neighborhood stream or ditch. The site recommends a number of seasoned crawfish sellers out of Louisiana, including Louisiana Crawfish Co., which touts itself as the No. 1 shipper of crawfish out of the Pelican State. The company will fly live crawfish anywhere in the U.S.

Crawfish need to be alive when they are put on boil, and the experts at Acadia Crawfish offer advice for how to keep them healthy and happy until they meet their fate. "Happy" is debatable — they'll be on ice and quite sluggish while they wait for dinnertime. Acadia says for best flavor, cook them the minute they arrive at your door.