Some eating experiences are transcendental, elevating the art of food to a higher plane, but good food doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, on our travels our most satisfying meals aren’t the high falutin ones with slices of lemon in our water glasses or multiple forks of varying sizes to navigate. Instead, I’ve been all about the no-frills meals that make me feel down-right primitive.
And nothing knocks me a couple of notches down the evolutionary chain more than when I’m attacking a plate full of crab.
Crab is a food you’ve got to work for. Tony says that crabs are so ferocious and scary-looking that, much like durian, the first person who decided he wanted to eat one had to be desperate and I’m inclined to agree with him. Part of my problem is that I don’t rightly know exactly how to eat crab. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t really know how to dismantle a crab to get at the good parts; I’ve even resorted to YouTube videos and other internet walkthroughs to no avail! Unless my crab comes already extracted from its shell, I wind up feeling like an inept bomb expert trying to decide which color wire to cut. All my flailing about generally results in such a paltry amount of meat that I find myself wondering if crab is really worth the effort. Not to mention that I often wind up injuring myself on a sharp claw, resulting in a yowled stream of expletives. Talk about primitive, just a couple of minutes into any attempt to get at a crab’s tasty bits and I’m angrily looking around for a rock so I can just bash the thing open in a fashion that would make my simian ancestors proud.
What can I say—patience never has been one of my strong suits.
Not a day went by during our time in Singapore when we didn’t hear someone extol the near-magical properties of chili crab, a dish so popular many have argued that it—not chicken rice—is the country’s national dish. Nevertheless, given a somewhat spotty track record, I was leery about slapping down a large chunk of change to try it unless we could find someone to chaperone us and help us navigate the crustacean’s tricky armor.
The days passed by, one by one, until we were facing our final night in Singapore without the taste of chili crab having graced our tongues. Our friend Peiyan had agreed to act as guide, but various work and family commitments kept interfering, and it looked like we were going to leave never having tasted this decadent dish…
We might have been willing to give up, but our friends who knew what we would be missing out on, weren’t as ready to call it quits. They knew what we were yet to learn: friends don’t let friends miss out on chili crab. At loose ends about how to spend our last night in Singapore, several people assured us that we should head to Jumbo Seafood, a restaurant chain famed for its chili crab where they would take good care of us. With less than 12 hours before we boarded a bus for Malaysia, we knew it was now or never.
So, we hopped the MRT to Clarke Quay and chose now. All I can say is thank goodness we did.
We arrived at Jumbo to find there was quite a wait for tables, but it seemed like the fates were smiling down on us— so long as we were willing to share a table with complete strangers, we could get right in. Figuring that if anyone was going to witness our abysmal crab wrangling skills it might as well be people we were never likely to see again, we agreed to these terms. Consequently, we wound up seated at a table with six other dining companions including a Chinese family, a very gregarious Aussie with a dining companion we initially thought (hoped?) was his daughter but later deduced (hoped?) was not related to him and may have been paid for her time, and an incredibly enthusiastic and super stereotypical Japanese man. It sounds like the long-winded set up to a joke of middling success, but there you have it.
As the size of Jumbo’s menu will attest (it is approaching encyclopedic proportions) there is plenty more than just chili crab on offer, but we all knew why we were there. The crab is sold at market rate, and the night we dined it was going for S$52/kg (or ~$18US/lb), so a meal here definitely qualifies as a splurge. We ordered 1 chili crab with a side order of mantou. These crispy little nuggets of dough are a bit like savory beignets and are reportedly so delectable that some argue that mopping up sauce with them is the highlight of any chili crab dinner.
Some might balk at dining with strangers, but this kind of communal dining and table sharing is something you simply need to learn to embrace in Asia. In our case, our dining companions wound up being a real boon, as not only did we get some nice dinner conversation, but the Aussie was one of those business travelers you hear about who, even with only 24 hours in Singapore, manages to fit in a meal of chili crab, meaning he was able to give us pointers for disassembling our beast once it was wheeled out to us. That’s not to say there weren’t still some hiccoughs along the way, because there certainly were: Tony’s first attempt at cracking open a claw resulted in an explosion of shell and sauce that left our Japanese dining companion with a tiny portion of our meal on his collar. Not to worry—we were all wearing novelty bibs, and he was too busy taking selfies with an iPad to notice, and even if he had, he was pretty much over the moon that he was getting to eat something so messy, and with his hands no less!
There are no words really to describe the exquisite flavor of Singapore chili crab, or at the very least, any words you do use will inevitably fall short. If you’ve never supped on it, you can’t possibly comprehend the amazing symphony of flavors that make up this dish. Despite the name, chili crab is not really a spicy dish, though there is just enough heat to the sauce to make your cheeks flush and bring a faint tingling to your lips. If I absolutely had to draw a parallel to something else of this earth, I suppose the rich, tomato-base gravy smothering the crab is kind of like the very best sweet and sour sauce you’ve ever tasted. Our initial passes at the crab were hesitant and awkward, but the sauce was so good, it pushed all inhibitions from our mind and we were soon pawing at the crab caveman-style, manically dragging the crispy, chewy mantou across the dish to soak up every last bit. We stopped eating only long enough to order a second round of the little dumplings. The only sounds around the table once our food arrived were they hearty groans of appreciation and the occasional smacking of lips.
It was heaven.
After one meal, I got it. I completely understood how people would plan stop-overs in Singapore just so they could have this dish again and again and again. I can’t believe that it took me nearly 30 years to experience it, that this dish hasn’t somehow made it’s mark across the globe, that I don’t know when I’ll get to have it again. Without a doubt, this is the Singapore dish that I miss the most and still think about wistfully. It wasn’t just our top food experience in Singapore, or even on this trip. This is easily one of the top 10 food experiences of my entire life.
They say that in life nothing worth having is easily won, and I kind of think who ever first uttered those words might have been secretly talking about chili crab. This is a food that leaves its mark; you emerge with your face splattered, like a warrior who has made it through a battle. A glorious, delicious, life-changing battle. The landscape of my food world will never be the same again!
Tell us: Have you ever tried Singapore chili crab? Do you recall ever eating a dish that changed your life?