cartoon chilli crab

How Chilli Crab Became Singapore’s National Dish

No other dish exemplifies the genius of the Singaporean kitchen as well as chilli crab, a speciality that incorporates vast culinary influence. Chilli crab is one of Singapore’s most well-known dishes, a great source of national pride for locals and a must-try for anyone visiting this bustling city-state.

The legend of the chilli crab

A plate of chilli crab
A heaping pile of chilli crab. Source: Shutterstock

Chilli crab dates back to 1956, when Singapore pair Cher Yam Tian and Lim Choon Ngee opened a food stand next to the Kallang River. Using an open charcoal fire and a few wooden tables and chairs to seat their guests, the restaurateurs’ reputation slowly began to grow. Rather than offering flashy decorations and a huge menu, the couple stuck to what they were best at: cooking simple, seriously delicious seafood.

Soon enough, the secret was out and Singaporeans everywhere were buzzing about the stand. Yam Tian and Choon Ngee had acquired a huge following of crab lovers. So huge, in fact, that a little stand by the river couldn’t cut it anymore. The pair needed to upgrade their kitchen, and that they did, eventually moving to a larger premises on Upper East Coast Road in Bedok Beach. The move was a success, and Singapore’s chilli crab connoisseurs followed.

What was all the fuss about? Well, Yam Tian and Choon Ngee were doing things differently. They didn’t use a boring tomato sauce to baste their chilli crab, instead they improvised and used cheap, bottled hot sauce. The result was sweet, spicy and tangy – a sauce that had people hooked from the very first bite. Other chefs caught on and tried to muster their own versions, and local pioneer Hooi Kok Wah was actually quite successful. He added lemon juice, sambal, tomato paste, vinegar and egg white, turning the sauce into a sort of silky, rich gravy. His recipe would later go on to inspire chilli crab as a national dish of Singapore.

Plate of chilli crab
Glorious chilli crab. Source: Shutterstock

Chilli crab in Singapore today

As chilli crab experts will know, however, the secret isn’t just in the sauce. Today as much as ever, the quality of the crab meat itself is also of utmost importance. The most common crustacean used in the dish is the mud crab, usually hailing from Myanmar, the Philippines or Sri Lanka. The crabs are first deep fried in hot oil, then allowed to cool before the chef fries them again in the chilli sauce. This ensures the meat is tender and succulent.

Tender meat means chilli crab requires no knife and fork. Yep, in restaurants all over Singapore, crab lovers dig in with their hands. They get messy and they have a blast while doing so. Mallets and nutcrackers are often used for digging into the tougher parts of the orangey-red shell and the cracking, smashing and peeling is all part of why this dish is so well-loved. It’s a hand’s on experience that locals love. The aromas, too, are otherworldly.

At popular chilli crab restaurants like Momma Kong’s in Chinatown, Singaporeans travel from all over town to sample the restaurant’s freshly cooked concoctions. In addition to chilli crab, this restaurant also serves other delicacies like crab bee hoon soup and butter crab, among others. No two chilli crab recipes are identical in this city. Every chef puts their own special touch on the chilli crab they serve. Exploring the different varieties of chilli crab at Singapore’s restaurants is just part of the fun!

As anyone familiar with Singapore knows, then, the chilli crab is a testament to the uniqueness of the local cuisine. Like the country itself, it’s unafraid to cross culinary boundaries and it fuses together ingredients from countries far and wide. Chilli crab embodies a part of Singapore’s rich history. It has withstood the test of time and it’s a dish Singapore deserves to be proud of.


Sara Strickland

Sara Strickland

After studying history in Florida, Sara moved to Berlin to follow her dream of living in Germany. She enjoys long walks with a beer in hand, learning new things and the sport of dogspotting.

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