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Singapore crabs

Updated: Jul 22, 2021

"this sticky, juicy, messy bowl of joy." Felicity Cloake

Last week's "How to make the perfect ..." was Singapore chilli crab which is not something I am ever going to make, but for two reasons I decided to do a post on it. And those two reasons developed into a few more related musings. Of course.

Since COVID we have obviously not been going anywhere. We have been a bit brave (we are generally cowards) and have booked a week in Port Douglas in September but nothing else is under consideration. We now have a travel bubble to NZ - and possibly from there to the Cook Islands, but people talk about the possibility of Singapore maybe. And in the last couple of years I have pondered on a week in Singapore in some luxury hotel. I haven't been there for years and years but I know that it has developed hugely since then, and I would love to see the Botanic gardens there. It's an interesting place I'm sure, and our favourite walking tour company Context has a few tours of the place. But I don't think I would want to spend more than a week there. Not that I see it happening, but seeing the article on the chilli crab it reminded me that I had thought about it and should perhaps look into it if it ever becomes feasible. Indeed will we ever feel happy about travelling overseas again? Well the plague eventually passed, and so did all those big flu epidemics, so hopefully COVID will too.

It also brought back a memory of having had chilli crab cooked for us by David's boss when he worked for Tandem at his house. I honestly can't remember whether David ate it because he has a horror of shellfish (and chilli) - but it was his boss. I loved it however. This picture is obviously not of his boss, but I post this picture here for two reasons. One Ray did cook it in a wok on a similarly small gas barbecue I think, and two that's Spencer Patrick of Harrisons - the posh restaurant in the Port Douglas Sheraton Mirage hotel. So maybe we should go there when we are in Port Douglas.

I don't think his recipe, which to be fair, he calls Asian Chilli Crab is really like the 'genuine' article because there doesn't seem to be a sauce involved here. David's boss's did however have a tomatoey chilli sauce as in the original - the version at the top of the page. And it was delicious. I remember it still. And sensational looking. It is a real showpiece.

And he showed me how to eat it. Which is the thing about crab served like this isn't it?

I mean how do you get at the meat? It makes my recent experience with the Grossi prawns seem an absolute doddle. So messy, so difficult, and for such a small amount of meat.

"There is something heroic about going through all that work for such a small amount of sweet, ozone-scented flesh. Even a cooked crab puts up a bit of a fight." Nigel Slater

I don't know about heroic because I watched a video or two on how to eat it and for a start wondered how warm the crab would be by the end of the process. There are tools to help but these looked just as daunting as doing it with your bare hands. And the mess was horrific, so take Felicity Cloake's advice:

"Serve with steamed or fried mantou buns (or, if you want to be faithful to the original, chunks of baguette), finger bowls and plenty of napkins."

I also have to say that watching these videos also, for some reason got me thinking about the whole queasiness of cooking shellfish. Which taken a step further could have me turning vegetarian. I mean the absolutely horrific idea of cooking them alive is just too much. And I don't like the idea of killing them more humanely either. Indeed Felicity Cloake did recommend that you leave it to the fishmonger who knows what he is doing. They have to be fresh you see. Then she threw in this:

"Adam Liaw stirs the gooey innards of the crab into the sauce to enrich it"

Oh no - ugh! - really just a step too far for me, although his finished dish does look delicious. So by the end of watching the videos I was almost put off of eating crab forever - and I certainly won't be cooking it. That link will take you to a video of Adam Liaw making it, as well as a written recipe.

But you can get crab in a tin. I remember asking a waiter at a long-gone Melbourne restaurant - Lazar's - about a crab dish on the menu and his response was "It's tinned Madam", spoken in a very doleful and apologetic tone. So obviously tinned is not really advisable. But you can buy crab that has been cooked and shredded I think. Honestly I have never looked because of the shellfish ban at the Dearman's house. But I do remember on the few occasions when I have had crab I thought it possibly the best of the shellfish. Sweetish, yet tangy.

Back to Singapore chilli chicken though and its origins. Quite a little war has grown up around it between the official Singaporean and Malaysian tourist people. Initially the generally accepted story was that it was dreamed up by a lady called Madam Cher Yam Tian in the 50s - she's still around I believe - when her husband said he was fed up with just steamed crab. It was so successful that she set up an illegal stall which moved around Singapore so as not to get caught, selling just her chilli crab. Eventually she and her husband got a licence, and her son and grandson continue the tradition at a restaurant called Roland's (here son's name). The dish at the top of the page is from there. The Malaysians eventually became somewhat furious about this - it's a pretty simple sauce after all, the major components of which were bottled tomato ketchup and chillies I think, so not especially complicated. Something your mother might just indeed toss together one night from what she had in her cupboard, and so the Malaysians said they had been making it forever - well a long time anyway. So the war still goes on, although the Singaporeans regard it as their national dish.

To make matters worse:

"In the 1960s, Singapore chef Hooi Kok Wai, who started Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, re-invented the dish. Instead of using bottled chilli and tomato sauce, he used lemon juice, vinegar, sambal and tomato paste in his gravy. He also topped the dish with egg white, to give it a smoother texture. Since then, Singapore is proud to proclaim the dish to be Singapore chilli crabs." Chopin and My Saucepan

It's all a bit silly really, but if you go to Singapore then you probably have to give it a go - a bit like going to Marseille and not eating Bouillabaisse. But then whose is the best? Here are two non- Singaporean versions - Felicity Cloake's Perfect Singapore chilli crab and one from Gourmet Traveller.

In Singapore you can even get chilli crab ice-cream. Yes Ice-cream - so weird I decided to do another post sometime on weird ice-cram.

Still on crab though. The chilli crab is not the only signature Singaporean crab dish. There is also black pepper crab. I don't think this one is cooked in a sauce, but it does look good. On the left Tony Tan's version from Gourmet Traveller, and on the right an SBS version. They look different from each other do they not?

The Chinese of course are not eating Australian sourced chilli crab at the moment because of China's ban on mud crabs from Australia. Mud crabs are the crabs used for these dishes, and the industry in Australia is suffering, so maybe we should really all go out and have some chilli crab in an excellent Melbourne eatery. I tried to find out where that might be but that was too hard. And actually it's not the season now anyway.


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