“You have to have Chili Crab,” a fellow traveller tells us. “It’s super touristy, but so good. Don’t obsess about where you get it; every hawker is good. The real debate is steamed bun or baked bun.”

This was no word of a lie; this is a must-do! Crustaceans in Canada have reached prices that are simply out of reach for us financially, so the potential of indulging in seafood while abroad was very exciting for us.

A whole mud crab is stir-fried in a thick tomato-based chilli sauce mixed with shredded crab meat and served with steamed mantou buns. One thing we learned quickly is that spicy food in South-East Asia is always actually spicy. We had a mouth burn for a good hour afterwards. The fluffy, sweet buns were a fantastic way to mop up every drop of the tangy, spicy sauce. 

Singapore’s famous chilli crab, as we see it today, apparently first appeared in the 1950s. There are slight differences found in the origin stories posted online, but this one seems to be the best researched: 

“Chilli crab is said to have been invented by Cher Yam Tian in the mid 1950s when she added bottled chilli sauce to her dish of stir-fried crabs, instead of using tomato sauce, her usual ingredient. In 1956, she and her husband began selling the dish from a pushcart along the seaside. Business was good and they eventually opened a restaurant in 1962, called Palm Beach, at 514 Upper East Coast Road. In 1984, they sold off some of their shares in the business to migrate to New Zealand.

Hooi Kok Wah, one of the four local chefs known as the “heavenly kings” of Chinese cuisine in the 1960s, is also considered a pioneer in the development of chilli crab in Singapore. When he opened Dragon Phoenix Restaurant in 1963,4 Hooi created a more sour version of chilli crab. GHe achieved this by using lemon juice, vinegar, sambal, tomato paste and egg white in the gravy, instead of bottled chilli and tomato sauces. This has become the more common version of the dish in Singapore.” (National Library Board of Singapore & Lee, J. (2009, September 19). Chilli crab was created in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. )

Some accounts claim that the dish was only made possible because of contact with caucasian culture after WWII. Bottled ketchup began to be imported, which is likely what Cher Yam Tian used in the very first chilli crab dish, probably mixing it with Sambal. Other sources speculate that she used imported bottled chilli sauce. According to Wikipedia, chilli peppers were introduced in the region by the Portuguese in the 16th century. It would seem the origins of chilli crab likely lie in a dish called ketam balado, which came from a peppercorn spice mixture used before locals had access to chillies.

This crab is served shell on, making eating it a messy proposition. Some hawkers provided plastic gloves, others a washing bowl. We found that every hawker stall we went to had a hand washing station easily accessible. Alliance Seafood at Newton Food Center provided plastic gloves, but a body bib would have been more appropriate. While the crab shell arrived cracked in some spots, meat was hidden in the thin legs and hard to get to corners of the knuckles and claws. Anyes wasn’t going to let that stop her. Like a rabid heron, she cracked every bit of shell possible between fingers and teeth and pulled out every morsel of sweet crab meat. But her determination came at a cost in the form of several rather prominent chilli sauce stains on her shirt! Fortunately we’re masterful at washing our clothes in a sink, so she was able to get the stains out. Apparently the benefit of eating Chili Crab at a restaurant is that they will often provide nut crackers to make getting at the meat a little easier.

We’re going to do some research when we’re home and play with making chilli-crab poboys. Using canned crab at home, because we couldn’t possibly afford fresh crab meat in Toronto!

There are also other versions of Chili Crab throughout the region:

“Over in Langkawi island (Malaysia), there is a Weng Fung Seafood Restaurant that serves a chilli crab dish that also dates back to the 1950s. Weng Fung was founded in the 1920s as a Hainanese coffee shop. The second generation turned it into a seafood restaurant and included a chilli crab dish in their menu in the 1950s. This chilli crab dish is still served in Weng Fung today.

Weng Fung’s version of chilli crab differs from the Singapore chilli crab because only rempah (chilli and spice mix) is used to cook the crab. Notably, no ketchup, egg, starch or vinegar is used.

The Minangkabau people from West Sumatra also have a spicy crab dish known as kepiting balado or ketam balado. Balado is made by frying ground red/green hot chilli pepper, garlic, shallot, tomato, kaffir lime leaf, kaffir lime, lemongrass and galangal in oil. This versatile spice mix is used to cook various dishes such as ayam balado (chicken), ikan belado  (fish), telur balado (egg), etc. You get the idea – balado is versatile! 

In the case of the crab dish, water and crab are added to the balado. The contents are stir fried and simmered till the water is much reduced and the crab is fully cooked. The origin of the balado crab dish is unknown but if we assume that it existed before the Minangkabau people migrated to the Malay peninsula, then it would go back to at least the twelfth century.” Johorkaki.blogspot.com

🍽️ Alliance Seafood, Newton Food Center
📍500 Clemenceau Ave N
💰 $56
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