Mission Delectable: Finding the Best Chilli Crab in Singapore
“If you’re not going to Singapore to eat your heart out…you’re doing something wrong,” said the friendly customs officer at the land border in Johor Bahru.
Not being one to argue with a man in uniform, I set out to indulge in every gastronomic pleasure I stumbled upon during my long-weekend jaunt in Singapore. Although I did discover quite a few delicious peculiarities (this city has an uncanny obsession with delectable cupcakes – who knew?) I set my sights primarily on one mission: to find the most mouth-watering chilli mud crab in Singapore.
Chilli crab is Singapore’s national dish – more of a national obsession, I would say – and easily the most exported epicurean delight to have come out of this small but gorgeous city-state. I first stumbled upon this meal during my stint in Sydney, Australia, when friends took me to Harry’s, the most famous crab joint in town. I was totally hooked. Chilli crab is unlike any seafood dish I’d ever tried. It was sweet, and spicy, messy, somewhat hard work, but rewarding and incredibly moreish. With plenty of noodles or plain steamed buns (called mantou) to mop up the thick sauce, it is a heavenly meal to savor. Needless to say, I’ve never forgotten that exotic culinary experience. So you can imagine how quickly I jumped at the chance to meet up with friends from home in Singapore over a weekend as I travelled through Malaysia. Luckily, my mates are likewise food-obsessed so the moment I proposed gorging our way through the city for three days (you know, in between shopping jaunts, cocktails atop the Marina Bay Sands and visits to the stunning Gardens by the Bay!) they didn’t hesitate for a second.
We’re set to go.
The world-famous Singapore Chilli Crab recipe is a hotly contested topic in these parts, with the argument over its origins even causing diplomatic tensions between Singapore and Malaysia. Contention aside, the dish is believed to have originated from the wok of a Chinese migrant’s pushcart along the seaside promenade of Singapore in the mid-1950s. Cher Yam Tiamm and her husband had been stir-frying crabs in tomato sauce for a few years, but it wasn’t until they had the genial idea to add some sweet chilli sauce to the concoction that their humble food cart became a sensation. The rest, as they say, is history.
Singaporeans are dead serious about their chilli crab (the operative word being ‘their’) and EVERYONE you ask is convinced they know just THE best place to savor it. Of course, they really do. The taxi driver, the supermarket check-out clerk, the hotel concierge and the bus conductor all have strong opinions on the matter. Just don’t make the mistake I did by asking a group of locals for recommendations or you’ll likely start a heated debate among them.
If you have time in Singapore, you could relish in the best crab in town, over and over again. My only advice? Don’t skimp in price. Yes, there are plenty of small, hole-in-the-wall eateries which offer crab at less than $20 a kilo, but usually (as in 99% of the time) you’ll be served small, minimally meaty crustaceans. The great majority does get the sauce right and although that’s definitely yummy enough eaten alone with steamed buns, it does defeat the purpose of a chilli crab dish. Splurge on huge meaty claws and I promise you won’t regret it.
Here are the best places to try Singapore Chilli Crab in the city that started the rage. Take this as a guide only. The most delightful way to find your favorite, is to go on your own hunt as soon as you arrive. The best way to eat chilli crab? With your hands, of course! Don’t worry….shell-cracker, oversized bib and hand-wash bowl will be provided.
Good luck on your mission and happy gorging!
Jumbo Seafood – Arguably the best choice for foreign palates or diners who aren’t huge fans of very spicy food. Jumbo’s sauce is deadly addictive, but one of the least spicy we came across. The elegant place on the riverside is a feast for all the senses, so if you want to spend a little more you’ll definitely get the full 5-star Singapore crab experience here.
Red House Seafood – Fat meaty crabs, mouthwatering sauce and eye-watering fried mantous make this a super choice, especially for hearty eaters. Crab is not the most filling meal to be had, but the delicious fried dumplings do a great job of making this a comfort-meal. If you’re travelling in company, then try the black pepper crab as well, it’s just as scrumptious. Hungry for more crab? Order the chilli crab buns to take back to your hotel – but I bet they won’t last that long!
Mellben Seafood – I hope you’re sitting down for this. At Mellbe there’s a crab recipe prepared with an insane amount of butter instead of oil, making it thicker and more delicious than you can imagine. Forget the extra calories and splurge forth with glee. This place also shares humble beginnings with its signature dish. It started as a hawker stand and is now spread out over three restaurants branches in the Lion City. The eatery on Ang Mo Kio Avenue is considered the best.
Want to knock the socks off your guests at your next dinner party? Then roll up your sleeves, enjoy your grocery-shopping trip, and prepare Singapore Chilli Crab at home.