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Jul 24, 2012 05:49 PM

Seafood Substitutions in Chinese Cooking

We ordered from a new Chinese take-out this evening, and I decided to get Lobster Fried Rice as one of the dishes, something I can't remember ordering in ages.

I'm fully aware the "crab" isn't really crab, it's the imitation product and I stay away from it. But from my experience, when I see "lobster" on a Chinese menu - invariably that IS what I get.

However, when I opened the container it most certainly was not. What I saw, appeared to be crayfish tails. And surely didn't taste like lobster either.

I called the restaurant to verify/complain. I got a song and dance first, about how it was indeed lobster; "baby lobster" because grown up lobster is too much money. I'm like, there is no such thing as baby lobster, and proceeded to tell her they were crayfish which are freshwater - not saltwater. Then she goes on to tell me every Chinese restaurant uses this product, that "big" lobster isn't used anymore, anywhere because of cost. I'm like, look, I don't like being rooked - it would be much better if you just call it "seafood fried rice" or something else, but don't make people think you're getting lobster if you aren't. I would have ordered something else in that case, would have been happy with my usual pork fried rice, or even a vegetable one for that matter. I didn't need to spend the extra money on something which wasn't even what it's touted to be.

She just didn't grasp this - not surprised - but said she would mention it to her boss. So, that was that.

Anyway - am I the uninformed one? Am I just used to going to better restaurants that do serve real lobster and this was an unfortunate lesser quality place (it was my first time ordering from them, I was taking a chance) or, was I being handed a story? I mean, there wouldn't even be that much lobster meat that would have to go into a pint of fried rice in the first place. I see lobsters on sale in the supermarket all the time, especially this time of year, for like $5-6 a pound. At that price - I can't imagine they wouldn't be able to use the real thing since they are charging a premium for the product anyway.


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  1. What did it say (in Chinese) on the menu?

    Lobster is 龍蝦 ["dragon prawn"] while crayfish is commonly known as 小龍蝦 (small 龍蝦).

    2 Replies
    1. re: huiray

      It was delivery, I should have been clearer. I ordered online from my house from a menu service that handles it for the restaurant. It said lobster. English only. And the paper menu I had at home is written in English only as well, said "lobster".

      1. re: huiray

        The common American Chinese "prawns with lobster sauce" would be something like 蝦球龍蝦糊 where 蝦球 are shrimp/prawn balls (not necessarily made with paste, could be deshelled headless shrimp stir fried) and 龍蝦糊 denotes lobster sauce.

        But yeah sounds like this restaurant is trying to rebrand crayfish as "baby lobster" which is kind of like using Jedi Mind Trick on the unsuspecting.

        Some restaurants do lobster noodles where they stir fry a whole lobster with noodles of your choice (typical version is e-fu noodles which are essentially fried and dried and rehydrated in cooking...not healthy, high sodium but deathfully delicious) but pay attention to the price of the dish...if a promo of US$10 to $14, they could in theory throw in a smaller lobster where you get more shell weight than meat.

      2. Most people (the ones that do not come on CH) don't care about those things, or are not generally aware of the difference between lobster and crayfish

        You could (and should) call your local "better business bureau" and tell them about that; there are probably regulation on false advertising in your area.

        As for the price, they probably get huge bag of frozen crayfish from China (or Viet-nam) a lot cheaper than anything they can find fresh locally.


        14 Replies
        1. re: Maximilien

          Yes, it did not taste fresh either, that's for sure. I was considering calling my credit card company and disputing the charge - but in the end, I just won't order from them again - although contacting the local BBB sounds like a decent enough plan.

          1. re: Maximilien

            You could (and should) call your local "better business bureau" and tell them about that; there are probably regulation on false advertising in your area.

            Lobster Sauce is probably on every Chinese menu. Would it surprise you that there is not any Lobster used to make the sauce? Do you think that is false advertising?

            1. re: fourunder

              But lobster sauce isn't supposed to have lobster in it. It's a sauce that's served with lobster. As I pointed out long ago in another thread, spaghetti sauce contains no spaghetti (and someone else noted that duck sauce is duck-free).

              This is a different situation. We expect potato salad to made from potatoes, for instance, and lobster fried rice to involve lobster, since lobster fried rice isn't commonly understood to be a type of fried rice that's served alongside lobster. What the OP describes is false advertising, very similar to what was discovered about Zabar's last year:


              1. re: small h

                But lobster sauce isn't supposed to have lobster in it. It's a sauce that's served with lobster.

                and shrimp as well.......and it's also supposed to have ground pork, not peas.

                in the end, it was a pint of fried rice listed on a menu.....with an improper ingredient used.....They did not advertise anything. I'll go on further to say in many Chinese restaurants.....Turkey was used for the Chicken Chow Mein......again a mistake...and wrong, but not false advertising.

                The problem of using the wrong type of seafood is not exclusive to Chinese you indicated, it even happens in a highly popular and well know institution as Zabar' I indicated below, in Italian Restaurants......and I'll end by saying it happens in many Japanese restaurants that serve Sushi where the suppliers of fish mislabel the product sold to these restaurants.

                1. re: fourunder

                  <in the end, it was a pint of fried rice listed on a menu.....with an improper ingredient used>

                  Yep. I would have been pissed for ten-ish minutes, eaten my crawfish (I like crawfish) and moved on. But while this may be a minor irritation for you and me, I don't think the OP is unjustified in making a bigger deal of it. The restaurant didn't make a mistake. The restaurant knowingly misrepresented the ingredients in one of its dishes, as the idiocy about "baby lobster" makes perfectly clear. And for the restaurant to further claim that "big lobster isn't used anymore, anywhere because of cost"? Really? Then I must have imagined all those stir-fried (big!) lobsters with ginger and scallion that I've had at Chinese restaurants over the years.

                  One thing I'd like to know is what the OP paid for his/her fried rice. Because if it was <$10, then s/he should have known it wasn't going to be lobster.

                  1. re: small h

                    I only got a pint of it. It was $6 for the pint, so what? $12 or a bit less for a quart? This particular place didn't sell it in quarts which I thought was odd.

                    Like I said, I haven't purchased this particular dish in probably years. I have no idea what the right price would be for it, and in the past, I've only gotten real lobster in it. My mistake for assuming I would be served the real thing everywhere.

                    I tried looking up prices for this dish online but it's kind of difficult without knowing the quality of the places I'm looking at. The highest price I saw was $15 a quart - but that wasn't anywhere near where I lived - it was out west somewhere.

                    Live and learn I guess!

                    1. re: sivyaleah

                      For $6/pint I would expect lobster. Not a lot of lobster, not excellent lobster, but lobster none-the-less. I will reiterate that I think you're right to be annoyed. Just as I am when someone serves me a sushi roll made with surimi and tells me it's "snow crab." No, no it is not.

                      1. re: small h

                        Thanks. That's what I thought - I didn't expect it to be packed with lobster by any means - but lobster nonetheless :/

                2. re: small h

                  The term "lobster sauce" is a relic of old-school Cantonese-American cooking. You won't find that item anywhere in China. I don't believe it has ever contained actual lobster.

                  It's like the term "chicken fried steak". There is no chicken in it. "Hamburgers" don't have any ham in them. "General Tso's Chicken" wasn't created by or for General Tso. "French fries" don't contain any French people in them.

                  But after a while, Americans have become so familiar with those terms that we don't think twice about them being misleading names.

                  1. re: raytamsgv

                    <It's like the term "chicken fried steak". >

                    Chicken-fried steak is steak fried in the manner one would fry chicken. And hamburgers are (anecdotally, at least) connected to the city of Hamburg. I have never been confused by this and don't find the terms at all misleading. Does anyone? Are there people out there who order a hot dog and expect to receive an overheated canine? This thread is about serving crawfish and calling it lobster. Totally, totally different thing, since "lobster" is not another term for "crawfish."

                    1. re: small h

                      Actually, I thought chicken-fried steak was actually chicken when I first ordered it.

                      The point is that you are so familiar with the term that it doesn't confuse you. Would an Australian, Brit, Canadian, or any other non-American English speaker know this?

                      What about the term "hot dog"?

                      For the record, I don't actually like the term "lobster sauce". And I'm referring only to "lobster sauce", not lobster fried rice or any other alleged lobster dish.

                      1. re: raytamsgv

                        "Actually, I thought chicken-fried steak was actually chicken when I first ordered it. "
                        I had a similar reaction when I first encountered the term/dish. In my case I thought the steak was being fried in some sort of combination WITH chicken. In any case it was a very confusing term to me, and even now I still blink at it - if not anything else because I still get the thought in my mind that the people who coined the term might have considered frying chickens to be the only way they knew how to cook chickens.

                        Besides, I wondered what was wrong with the less-confusing term "country-fried steak" ** ;-) which at least did not lead one to think that chicken was in the dish even though you had no idea what it was until you looked into it.

                        **(Or even better, "schnitzel with sauce") :-)

                      2. re: small h

                        Chicken-fried steak is steak fried in the manner one would fry chicken. And hamburgers are (anecdotally, at least) connected to the city of Hamburg. I have never been confused by this and don't find the terms at all misleading. Does anyone?

                        Many immigrants do.

                        Same with "hot dogs".

                  2. re: fourunder

                    LOL, as others wrote - I'd know there's no lobster in that dish also. I've been eating that since I'm a tot :D

                3. Yield on $5-6/ lb lobster is 3-4 oz

                  1. I personally think it's a bad way to run a business. The owners should have labeled the item correctly.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: raytamsgv

                      See that's the thing. There is a wonderful take-out not far from me, but a bit too far for delivery. They only use high quality ingredients - everything is exactly as they say it is (it's the only place I know of that makes this great Shrimp with Black Pepper that I'm totally addicted to - I've never seen it on any other menu). I probably got spoiled from using them for so long while I lived in that area - which possibly was the last time I ordered that dish (I moved sort of recently). I have no issue if a restaurant isn't able to afford to use prime ingredients - just don't pretend that they are so the buyer can be aware and stay away from those dishes they don't care to eat.

                    2. I've seen Italian restaurant use Crayfish Tails in their Lobster pasta dishes. It's not exclusive to Chinese restaurants.

                      With that said, whenever a menu claims lobster as an ingredient....I ask if it is made with Maine Lobster. If not I do not order it.....even if I Imported frozen tails or Slipper Tails.

                      With regards to Prawns or Shrimp.....I ask if they are large, medium or small size to get an idea of what to expect.

                      btw....there is indeed baby lobster...and shrimp for that matter. As for the false advertising and calling the BBB.....that's a little extreme action to take. There was no fraud or false advertising perpetrated. If you read the current thread on the Secret Chinese Menu....then you will know the translations are often quite difficult to get correct. In the discussion there's a mention of a dish called Fish Flavored Pork.....but it does not have any fish in it. Not knowing the scientific classifications of ingredients is a mistake.....nothing more. Chalk it up to a life experience and find yourself another place to be happy. with their food.

                      7 Replies
                      1. re: fourunder

                        Out of curiosity, what happens if you call the BBB to report 'fraud'/'false advertising'? Is there an automatic fine? A warning system? In this case where changing the name from lobster fried rice to seafood fried rice - if the change is made in x amount of time, does that automatically correct it?

                        I think that labeling stuff based on 'standard expectation' vs 'truth in advertising' is an argument, though in this specific case, I do think that the poster had an expectation of lobster. I have lived in Jerusalem for a while, and in the Israeli restaurant scene - if you see "goose breast" on a menu - expect it to be goose that has been prepared/treated/used like bacon or pancetta. That is the 'standard' label for that preparation of goose. If you don't like cured/smoked food, there is rarely any indication on the menu. Being upset by such an order, or being upset by the presence of canned seafood instead of fresh - that's a case of buyer beware/ask questions. But in this case, understanding I have no knowledge about what the BBB will even do, I think the poster did have an expectation.

                        1. re: cresyd

                          The BBB is overall pretty useless and has zero authority to levy fines or any sort of punishment. They are however VERY good at repeatedly calling businesses asking them to pay a fee to become a BBB member. In 9 years of business I've never had someone EVER ask for a BBB rating. In 9 years I have had ONE complain about my business to the BBB and since I was not a member there was nothing the BBB did to help either me or the customer. In my opinion the BBB has gone the way of the yellow pages, pretty useless in the age of the internet. In my experience a calm talk with the owner always yields a better result than BBB complaint threats or threats to sue as those threats do nothing but put the two parties at war against each other instead of trying to come together to a mutual satisfactory result. That and by the time people actually get around to actually filing a complaint or pursuing a lawyer they realize it's more hassle time and/or money than their small complaint is worth. Yelp, Chowhound, AngiesLlist et al seem to do a much better job of quickly weeding the bad businesses. I don't know about most people, but the BBB is a source I've never consulted when investigating a new restaurant.

                          Also of note is that the BBB is not a customer is always right type of organization. There is little chance of convincing a business to sign up to be a paying BBB member if their first dealing with them is going to yield in a poor score. They make money by businesses paying fees to be BBB accredited and as you can imagine no business is going to stay an accredited member if they have anything other than a good score.

                          My guess regarding the lobster issue here is the restaurant would prove they used "baby lobsters" which I believe in this case are the small slipper lobsters talked about up thread. The BBB would find that the restaurant did nothing wrong by using slipper lobster instead of maine lobster or any other kind of lobster the OP was hoping to get. This would thus result in an A+ rating for the business if they agreed to sign up to become a member.

                          Please note I have only dealt with the BBB once, but this is the sense I got of how the BBB works. If they have changed their ways since then I hope someone else will chime in.

                          1. re: cresyd

                            As I have indicated, mis-naming or mis-labeling an ingredient on a menu would be tough to prove fraud or false advertising. There are many examples of dishes already mentioned above where the item is called one thing, but you receive something different.....whether it's cooked in the style of, or thinking it should contain what is named.

                            Using Shrimp and Lobster Sauce as an example, it's been argued that it is commonly known there is no lobster used in making the sauce. I would argue that's incorrect, as if you ordered Lobster Cantonese, lobster is in fact used to make the sauce......but regardless of that, not everyone is fully educated in Chinese menus. Does one person who did not know have claim to file a complaint because there was no lobster in the sauce? I think not. I agree that Crayfish is not proper in substituting for actual lobster, but then again I have also mentioned that the substitution of crayfish for lobster is not exclusive to Chinese Food and restaurants.

                            With regards to filing an BBB report....anyone can do so if they felt they were wronged, but in this particular case it would go nowhere.....and here's why: The OP ordered Lobster Fried Rice. She paid for it, went home to enjoy it, but when she opened the container, suspected the Lobster Fried Rice did not contain any actual lobster, instead realizing it contained crayfish. She called and voiced her concerns and got a less than satisfactory answer and gave up the fight.....choosing by her own admission in saying * So, that was that.*. There is always a process expected to be followed by both parties in settling a dispute and completing resolution. If that process is not followed, then you have cause to take it further. If you do not follow the process yourself, then your cause for complaint would be dismissed.

                            Now I do not know the relationship she has with this particular business, but with the Chines restaurants I frequent, if there is a miscue, I simply call the restaurant and tell them something was missing or something was wrong. They tell me immediately I can receive a credit without any further explanation, and record it in their computer or journal. Should this have been done with the OP? That answer would be yes, but it wasn't. If the OP really was not satisfied with the food or service received, then she should have marched back down to the store and returned the *Lobster Fried Rice* uneaten and requested a refund.....if she did so and was refused, then she may have a legitimate complaint to file with the BBB.....but she did not do this. The notion that this scenario commits fraud or is false advertising is silly. As I have repeated, it's a menu item and it can be called anything. If you disagree with what is served, then you refuse it or return it. You do not eat it , and or, keep it. .....You make a decision if you will ever return to the business or not...

                            Chinese restaurants are notorious for crazy menu names, translations and for lack of proper descriptions. By the OP's recollection of the complaint call back to the restaurant, the worker clearly believes the crayfish to be baby lobster and does not know the difference with Maine Lobster. Ignorance is not a defense, but I do not believe this was really an egregious attempt at deception.. Have an *expectation* is understandable when reading a menu and ordering. If a substitution is made without notice, then does that constitute false advertising or fraud? I cannot recall how many times i have ordered *mashed potatoes*, but instead, received French Fries, Baked or Rice. I've also ordered Steaks with Asparagus as the noted vegetable......only to receive zucchini or other in place. And last, on one infamous Valentine's Day Massacre, I've ordered Mahi Mahi for dinner, only to have Swordfish come out in it's place, and the management tell me it was indeed Mahi Mahi.... and the Seafood Risotto ordered, came out as seafood atop White Long Grain Rice. The latter was a situation that mirrored the OP's unpleasant experience.....although I would say the house intentionally tried to pass off the dishes fully knowing there was a difference in what was to be expected. The recourse is to refuse the food....not pay for it....or return it..

                            As ignorance is not a defense for the restaurant......inconvenience is not a reason for *expectation* of what is required for the OP to be made whole.

                            1. re: fourunder

                              First of all - it was a delivery as I've mentioned a couple of times already; I also had no relationship with the restaurant. It was the first time I ordered from them on recommendation from other people in my area.

                              Second - had they offered to refund me or give me credit for a future meal, I would have been ok with that. It would have been the right thing to do. Instead, I got a song and dance from the person I spoke to trying to cover their tracks. She said she'd mention it to the owner - but for all I know, she could have been the owner, you know?

                              I could have called my credit card company but honestly, for the $6 it cost (and it was't like it was inedible) it just didn't seem worth the trouble to dispute it. I can easily let people in my area know about it (I belong to a local blog which does surveys about various area restaurants now and then, and you can bet I'll mention this incident).

                              I'm racking it up to a lesson learned now.

                              BTW - I've had people serve me regular white rice instead of arborio in risotto also. THAT went back to the kitchen! I cook risotto at home all the time and the moment it landed in front of me I recognized the switch.

                              1. re: sivyaleah

                                you know?

                                No, I don't.

                                Second, the point is you did not demand a refund.

                                As For the CC company, you say it's not worth it to dispute, but you say this....

                                although contacting the local BBB sounds like a decent enough plan.

                                Regardless of whether it was delivered to the end you decided to keep it. You should have told them to come pick it up and refund your money. Instead of being over and done you are considering following up with a complaint to the BBB....and continuing to discuss this on your local food blog.

                                That seems like a lot more trouble to me.....all over a pint of Fried Rice that you are not willing to dispute with your CC Company.

                                1. re: fourunder

                                  Wow not sure why you're getting an attitude with me. I had none with you. The "you know" was rhetorical. Not directed at you personally.

                                  I didn't discuss it on "my local food blog". I said, that if it came up, which is "now and then", I would be able to mention it and let others know my experience. It's not like I'm running out slamming them. In fact not once have I mentioned the name of this place. That in itself should show that I am not out to run them into the ground. The whole point of this was only to find out if this was a common thing which occurs - not to ruin the restaurant.

                                  And I'm not the one who brought up the BBB. Others did. Even you were on board with that plan. It never even crossed my mind until then and now you're calling me out on it?

                                  Sheesh. I'm just writing back to people who continue to write to me here. Would you prefer I now ignore my thread?

                                  1. re: sivyaleah

                                    First off , I do not take it personally, but when you reply to my comments, then the response is directed towards my comments, no? I have no idea what is rhetorical. Maybe there's a little confusion here, You responded to my comments to( cresyd )...they were not addressed to you. Your comments then pertained to mine and you addressed them.... but the way I read it, it's in conflict with what You have alluded to what you will do. Also, it's incorrect when you attribute a position that I do not support.... namely, reporting the problem to the BBB. I have clearly opined a complaint does not have merit in this case......So I was Not on board with that plan. As you say in your last paragraph....when people write to you, you write different here with me. Again, I do not take it personally, but just staying engaged and clearing up any thing that needs to be reviewed..
                                    As for the local food you say if it comes up, you would be able to mention it.........however, what you stated above was this...

                                    I can easily let people in my area know about it (I belong to a local blog which does surveys about various area restaurants now and then, and you can bet I'll mention this incident).

                                    That sounds like your intent is to slam least that's what it suggests to me.....

                                    As for the charge of having an attitude, again, not true. I have clearly stated since you believe you received something other than what you ordered, you should be entitled to a refund. I just happen to Disagree with how the restaurant, and you, handled the situation..... and how to handle the situation as advised by others.