Just as the Brits have their fish and chips and the Aussies, their meat pies, Singapore’s Chilli Crab is undoubtedly our national dish of gastronomic pride. Like our humble kampong beginnings, who could’ve guessed back then that it would one day earn the epic international acclaim it has today.
To think that long ago, a meal of Chilli Crabs had once been a much grander event than it is now. Not that the Twitter generation would know, but those were days when indulgence for many families meant dining at one of the earliest ‘Zi-Char’ style seafood restaurants (Long Beach, Palm Beach, Jumbo and the like) along the old East Coast seafood restaurant strip, facing the sea. One had to be Generation X, such as yours truly, or earlier, to be around in those days when dining on Chilli Crabs was a privilege perhaps the equivalent of roast suckling pig to our great grandfathers. For the average family, it was almost sacred in that Chilli Crabs meant a celebration was in the works—perhaps a birthday, a happy occasion when a couple got engaged to be married, when someone’s dad or uncle struck the 4-D, or when their child scored a few As or A stars at PSLE.
As a child I relished a special night with my family and relatives dining on Chilli Crabs. Even now, I can almost smell the flaming wok-fired seafood horfun which was one of our favourite pairings with Chilli Crabs. While waiting for our seafood to arrive, part of the fun had been running around with the other kids watching the live seafood swimming in the large tanks on display. Who needs air-conditioning when in those days we dined under the stars (if indoor seating was full) with the salty sea breeze blowing. Chilli Crab ruled the banquet spread and was enjoyed communal style along with classic signature dishes like deep fried crunchy caramelised mini ‘sotong' squids and stuffed ‘you tiao' (deep fried dough fritters stuffed with cuttlefish paste).
The table setting either included complementary disposable wet towelettes or damp towels with tiny bowls of water for refreshing every diner’s Chilli crab-stained fingers. While waiting, every diner practiced their chopstick skills trying to pick up the salted peanuts in the middle of the table that was commonly served as the humble appetiser. Those days saw round ‘make shift tables’ crudely made of rustic wooden boards that the waiters rolled around easily on floors to be placed above the original table to ‘extend’ a smaller round table. In that way, enterprising seafood restaurants rarely turned away bigger groups of dining parties and made haste to accommodate as many bustling diners as the night would see.
When the waiter finally set the prized mud crab on the centre of the ‘lazy susan’, it was always the highlight of the night’s banquet. Its tantalising aroma wafted into every swooning diner’s nostrils with the subtle hint of ginger and garlic pumped up by the fiery sting of chillies. Its gloriously flavoured crab flesh bathed in its rich tomato-chilli gravy, thick and pudding-like with streaks of egg white still dribbling down from the pieces of pre-smashed orangey-red mud crab claws, was a vision.
For the pre-Instagram community, no time was ever wasted creating food envy on social media. Instead, everyone dived in on the get go and it must’ve taken only minutes before a glorious platter of Chilli Crab was completely devoured by hungry packs of diners who pounced at it with wild, cannibalistic abandon. Everyone seemed oblivious to the banquet table looking like a crime scene with chilli tomato gravy splattered everywhere like blood on the white tablecloths. The aftermath was simply an open display of satiation that lingered on long after you’ve mopped up every last drop of red gravy with fried mantou buns.
More than just a fixation and bordering on a national obsession today, the ubiquity of Chilli Crabs is a sign of the times. Like our eclectic architecture of heritage shophouses interspersed with imposing skyscrapers, a dish of Chilli Crabs is a reminder that tradition is as paramount as progress. We now enjoy creative hybrids of our favourite crustacean dish today. There’s Black Pepper Crab always vying for the top spot, and even White Pepper Crab and Salted Baked Crab, amongst others. Still hailed as the king, there is now, however, Chilli Crab dining styles and budgets to suit each one, from the ramshackle zinc-roofed Zi Char coffeeshops of Joo Chiat and Upper Bukit Timah, to the traditional pavilions of Hua Yu Wee, and of course the updated, original local seafood restaurants of Palm Beach, Jumbo and Long Beach. No surprises that in our vibrant, cosmopolitan city, it has found its way even to the glitzy menus of many fine dining establishments along Marina Bay Sands and Orchard Road.
Nowhere in the world has a dish of spicy crustaceans had more pervading influence on international chefs, TV food networks and stellar food magazines (such as Gourmet Traveller and Saveur, just to name a few), enough to spawn a host of hybrid recipes. Jamie Oliver and Pete Evans each have their versions and so does Gordon Ramsay, after that memorable and nail-biting Singtel’s Hawker Heroes Chilli Crab ‘cooking duel’ against Jumbo Seafood in 2013. Even world-renowned Michelin-starred chefs like Joel Robuchon counts Chilli Crab as one of his favourite local food in Singapore. Our little red dot also scored a spot on CNN’s list of the world’s 50 most delicious foods with Chilli Crab at thirty-fifth place.
All this fuss on the international culinary stage about Singapore’s beloved crab, but make no mistake, Chilli crab is not for pretentious connoisseurs. ‘The way of the Chilli Crab’ is certainly never going to be the way that belongs to high-brow fine dining paired with solemn, deliberate sniffing and dainty wine sipping. Therein lies its simple and rustic beauty: it’s just finger-licking good. No need for civilised table etiquette. Caveman style is best.
Make a mess and have a splendid time doing so. It’s a dish best enjoyed like my memories of how we dined on Chilli Crab in those old ‘by the sea’ days—with unbecoming mischief that would be taboo today, like squeezing the plastic packaging of the wet towelette as hard as you could, then smacking it down with your other palm to see who could burst it open with the loudest “Pop”! Even my grandma found it too funny to chide us. The old people laughed with the full glory of their gold dentures, the men toasted with Tiger beers to their good fortune, and the children learnt vital skills: first how to crack a crab claw like a pro and also how to duck quickly when someone who isn’t yet one, delivers a sudden flying shrapnel of crab shell at your face.
The next time you have Chilli Crab, do so with the gusto of a proud Singaporean with a hearty appetite. Eating is our national past time, so go on and show your Chilli Crab the love it deserves. And don’t forget to make an occasion of it—always find something to celebrate. Yam Seng to that.