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Gourmet Secrets: Eating the soul of Singapore

In a country where food is almost a religion, chilli crab is the highest power

brunch Updated: Jul 23, 2018 12:08 IST
Karen Anand
Karen Anand
Hindustan Times
chilli crab,Singapore,Hawker Centre
Chilli crab is often considered the national dish of Singapore

Singapore remains my single most favourite destination for food in the East; consistently great at all price levels and types, unparalleled service, hygiene, safety, civic sense… and a sense of quality, whether you eat at a food court, at the airport or at a fine dining restaurant.

Despite the fact that Singapore today boasts more world renowned cuisines than most countries, it is still the local dishes, which send my nostrils flaring and taste buds tingling. The sight of a busy Hawker Centre where bowls of fish ball soup come piping hot to your table and dishes are whipped up in a wok in a matter of minutes - this is the soul of Singapore and this is where most Singaporeans go to eat real food. An added bonus is that you can snack in these places at any time of the day and often until quite late at night, the food is always cheap and due to Singapore’s stringent health laws, always very clean.

Hello, have you eaten?

Every dish you eat in these cavernous halls or outdoor centres will be memorable, basically because most stalls will specialise in only one or two dishes. For a first time visitor, the choice is bewildering - roast duck and pork ribs, chicken rice, fresh seafood, noodles of various descriptions and combinations, rice porridge, claypot rice, satay.

Many Singaporeans work long days and therefore have little time to cook at home, much like Indians in cities, so the culture of eating local food outside the home has grown. When friends meet in Singapore, their greeting reflects the importance of food. “Hello,” they say, “Have you eaten yet?” Food is Singapore’s national obsession, not just mine.

The local cuisine reflects three great cultures which have met here, mingled and flourished: Chinese, Indian and Malay. Within each of these three main ethnic groups of Singapore, there are a dozen different types of cooking and then there are all the short cut dishes, twists and turns and tweaks which have become quintessentially “Singaporean”. Fish head curry smells and tastes South Indian, but dropping a big fish head into it is not Indian at all. It is very Asian. Popiah is the local version of the Chinese spring roll, only larger and softer. And then there’s chilli crab.

A country in a crabshell

Chilli crab is often considered the national dish of Singapore and locals love to debate where the best one can be found. For years, the little shacks by the shore in Ponggol served up the freshest and the best. There would be queues of eager beavers dying to get their fingers dirty. Alas, Ponggol is now a thing of the past, but many other Hawker Centres and of course the restaurants on the East Coast Parkway serve up this delicious dish. Chilli crab is not really all that spicy. Much of its bright red sauce is achieved with tomato ketchup!

I was taken to Punggol 30 years ago by a Singaporean friend and her Sri Lankan husband. It was a tiny nondescript village on the sea about an hour’s drive from Orchard Road, with maybe three or four very ramshackle restaurants serving food on plastic plates. They warned me about the really simple surroundings but assured me that it was worth the long drive.

The jumbo crab had just been caught and came steaming on a big plate engulfed in a pool of orangy red sauce thickened with egg. It was sweet, sour and spicy, but not chilli hot. Everyone was aglow with excitement and pleasure. I personally preferred the black pepper crab that we also ordered.

Chilli crab for me is Singapore in a nutshell… or crab shell. Invented in Punggol, it is a quick home-style dish which contains tomato ketchup, garlic, ginger and fresh red chillies, basically what every household would have at hand in the kitchen. Some restaurants even use the commercial red chilli sauce you find on every table instead of fresh chillies. So, theoretically you can make it at home very easily. All you need is a wok and a high flame.

The India connect

It was a trip down memory lane when I came across this dish at Spice Traders, the stunning Asian restaurant at the W hotel in Goa recently. For those of us who love crab but can’t tackle the cleaning and claws that eating a crab entails, this is a Godsend! They remove the crab from the shell, gratinate it to add flavour, top it with the cooked sauce, fill it back into the crab shell and serve you three delicious shells of piping hot chilli crab as a starter. Mind blowing! Hats off to chef Tanveer Kwatra to come up with this. Creative genius. Strange that no Singapore restaurant has come up with this before.

Like Punggol, it is certainly worth the drive to Vagator in north Goa to experience this one dish at the W Goa.

Singapore Chili Crab @ Spice Traders, W Goa

Serves 4

500 g mud crab meat
70 g Japanese Mayonnaise
10 g chopped spring onion
10 g panko crumbs
5 g Parmesan
5 g garlic, chopped fine
3 g ginger, chopped fine
25 g onion, chopped fine
5 g lemon grass base, chopped fine
10 g red chili paste
3 g birds eye chili, chopped fine
10 g tomato ketchup
5gm oyster sauce
3 g sugar
Salt to taste
1 egg
Oil to fry


Poach and de-shell the mud crab so you have 500g meat. Keep shell for garnish.

Add mayo and mix into a crab shell. Fill the ramakin top with panko crumbs and parmesan cheese.

Heat oil. Add onion, garlic, ginger, lemon grass, Thai red chilies and sauté well in that order. Add sugar, salt, chili paste, tomato ketchup and oyster sauce. Add the egg and whisk into the sauce till cooked but not hard. Keep aside.

Bake the crab under a hot grill till the cheese is golden. Heat the sauce and spread over the crab. Serve hot.

Author Bio: Culinary expert and explorer Karen Anand has been writing extensively on the subject of food and wine for 30 years. Apart from having her own brand of gourmet food products, she has anchored top rated TV shows, run a successful chain of food stores, founded the hugely successful Farmers Markets, and worked as restaurant consultant for international projects, among other things. Her latest passion is food tours, a totally curated experience which Karen herself accompanies, the first of which was to Italy.

This is a fortnightly column. The next edition will appear on August 5.

From HT Brunch, July 22, 2018

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First Published: Jul 21, 2018 21:12 IST