Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Chilli Crab---My First Kill!

I hardly ever cook crab at home, though I love eating them. That’s because I could never muster the guts to slaughter them! Yes, I am a wimp when it comes to personally ending the life of one of God’s creatures for the cooking pot…

In Singapore, when we talk about crab, what’s on everybody’s mind is almost always Chilli Crab.

I think this dish’s place in the ‘national cuisine’ of Singapore is richly deserved. Though there are many various claimants to the original birthplace of Chilli Crab, for sheer satiating deliciousness, no country does it the way we do.

However, having eaten Chilli Crab since I was a boy, I can say too, that I’ve borne witness to the gradual changes in the dish, especially in flavor and the type of crab used. It began as a simple affair---just local mud crabs---but over the years has come to embrace a richer harvest, including the Sri Lankan crab, Alaskan crab, and snow crab of today. The gravy has also evolved: it is sweeter, and often much less spicy, than I remember it.

In the old days, people ate Chilli Crab sometimes with rice, but more often with the local version of the baguette known as ‘French loaf’. And nothing tasted better than dipping chunks of French loaf into the thick gravy. These days the French loaf is all but forgotten, replaced instead by the steamed or fried Chinese bun called ‘man tou’.

I never like my Chilli Crab with the sweeter and finer textured man tou, and sorely miss the simple French loaf, with its rough thick crust heavily soaked and dripping with spicy crab gravy!

Ideal choices for the crab to be used are Sri
Lankan and Indonesian, whose meat is firmer.
Recently, I took the bold step of slaughtering a crab. Where an experienced cook would have made light work of it in a minute or less, I took more than twenty, with much of it spent simply drumming up the courage!

I was trying to replicate the Chilli Crab I used to enjoy at home back in the 60s. To achieve this, I made my own chilli paste instead of relying on the off-the-rack versions available today---which would have given me flavors different from those of my childhood. I also skipped the step where you quick-deep-fried the crab, since I preferred my crabmeat succulent, soft and juicy, and the skipped process would have left a light crust on the meat. Therefore, enjoy!

Chilli Crab

Oil                   1½ tbsp
Onion              ½, sliced thickly
Red chilli         2, sliced thickly
Chilli paste      2 tbsp
Mud crab         1 kg, cleaned and chopped and smashed lightly
Wine               2 tbsp
Stock               1 cup
Tomato           2, quartered
Salt                  ½ tsp
Sugar               1 tsp
Egg                  2, lightly beaten
Corn flour       1 tbsp, diluted with 1 tbsp of water
Coriander        1 tbsp, sliced
Spring onion   1 tbsp, sliced

Chilli paste:

Oil                   8 tbsp
Shallots           130 g, chopped
Garlic               80 g, chopped
Candle nuts     60 g, chopped
Belachan          50 g, mashed
Chilli paste      250 g
Salt                  ½ tsp
Sugar               2 tbsp


1.    Fry onion and chilli over low flame until the onion turns soft. This will caramelize the onion.
2.    Increase the flame to the maximum, add chilli paste and fry for 30 seconds before adding the crab. Quick-stir for 1 minute. Add wine around the circumference of the wok. This process helps to evaporate all alcohol content. Continue to stir-fry for another 1 minute.
3.    Add stock, tomato, and cover the wok with a lid. Let the stock boil for 5 minutes, without opening the lid.
4.    Remove lid, season the mixture with salt and sugar. Lower the flame and add beaten egg and stir thoroughly.
5.    Thicken the sauce with corn starch.
6.    Garnish the dish with coriander and spring onion and serve immediately.
7.    After eating the crab, it is a practice to finish the sauce by dipping baguette in it.

Chilli paste:

1.     Saute shallots with oil until light golden brown, add garlic and belachan and continue to fry until all ingredients are golden brown.
2.     Add candle nuts and chilli paste and cook until oil surfaces. If the mixture turns dry or begins to burn during the process, add a tbsp of water during the frying.
3.     Season with salt and sugar. The cooked chilli paste can be kept for 2 weeks refrigerated.

Note: Crab could be deep-fried in hot oil for 30 seconds, and drained before cooking. This will form a very light crust on the meat. But I prefer to skip this step as I like the crabmeat smooth and soaked in the gravy thoroughly.