Chilli crab is a popular seafood dish among locals and foreigners in Singapore, and consists of mud crabs deep-fried in a sweet, savoury and spicy gravy.1 It has been referred to in various food publications as Singapore’s national seafood dish or even Singapore’s national dish.2
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.3
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 history of chilli crab in Singapore. When he opened Dragon Phoenix Restaurant in 1963,4 Hooi created a sourer version of chilli crab that used 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.5
In 2009, Malaysian tourism minister Ng Yen Yen claimed that chilli crab was one of several Malaysian dishes that had been wrongly credited to other countries.6 Many Singaporeans were indignant as chilli crab was widely regarded as a local creation.7 Ng’s claim has not yet been substantiated.8
The dish consists of deep-fried crabs that are served in a chilli- and tomato-based gravy.9 Mud crabs are normally used and these are usually Sri Lankan, Burmese or Filipino in origin.
After the crab has been cleaned and chopped into smaller pieces, it is deep-fried in oil and then deep-fried again in the gravy. Corn flour and beaten eggs are added near the end of the cooking process to thicken the gravy.
As the crab is served with the shell on, the dish is typically eaten with one’s hands. Most restaurants will therefore provide wet towels or washing bowls. The pincers contain the most meat, but the meat from the body and legs tends to be smoother. To access the meat, diners have to strip away the somewhat intact but cracked shell. Sometimes they may have to crack the shell further using nutcrackers and mallets provided by the restaurants. The top shell, which is separated from the main body, may contain roe if the crab was female.
Bread is often eaten with chilli crab. A favourite way of eating is to sop up the spicy sweet and sour gravy with the bread, which could be soft white bread, baguette or fried Chinese buns called mantou.10
Chilli crab in Singapore and abroad
Chilli crab is readily available in Singapore, with numerous seafood restaurants across the island offering the dish.11 Ready-mix chilli crab pastes have been developed for those who prefer to cook it themselves.12 The popularity of chilli crab has also brought about innovative adaptations such as chilli crab dumplings13 and chilli crab sandwiches.14
The Singapore Tourism Board officially promotes chilli crab as one of Singapore’s signature dishes through its website15 and at overseas events. One such event is the Tiger Beer Singapore Chilli Crab Festival, which has been held in various cities including London and New York.16
Damien Lim & Valerie Chew
1. Eat. (2005, July 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Naleeza Ebrahim, & Yaw, Y. Y. (2006). Not just a good food guide: Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
3. Lee, J. (2009, September 19). Chilli crab was created in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 112; Claws and found. (2004, March 14). The Straits Times, p. L21; Lum, M. (1996, June 23). 40 good years dishing up chilli crabs. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Seetoh, K. F. (Ed.). (2010). Makansutra: Eating lessons: The five star guide to no frills hawker food in Singapore. Singapore: Makansutra Pub., p. 81. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 MEL-[DIR])
5. Lee, J. (2009, September 19). Chilli crab was created in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 112. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Singapore Tourism Board. (2016). Chilli crab. Retrieved from Singapore Tourism Board website: http://www.yoursingapore.com/dining-drinks-singapore/local-dishes/chilli-crab.html
6. Looi, E. (2009, September 18). Truly Malaysian? The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Malaysia not intending to ‘patent’ local food. (2009, September 24). The Straits Times, p. 19; Lee, J. (2009, September 19). Chilli crab was created in Singapore. The Straits Times, p. 112. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Chilli crab won’t belong to Malaysia, after all. (2009, September 24). Today, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Eat. (2005, July 4). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Naleeza Ebrahim, & Yaw, Y. Y. (2006). Not just a good food guide: Singapore. Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, p. 150. (Call no.: RSING 647.955957 NAL)
11. Teo, P. L. (2005, June 12). Feeling crabby? The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Wong, A. Y. (2001, May 6). Prima strikes out with bak kut teh and other hawker fare. (2001, May 6). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Chilli crab bao. (2007, August 1). The New Paper, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Lim, C. (2010, October 10). Chilli crab fix without the mess. The New Paper, p. 30. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Singapore Tourism Board. (2016). Chilli crab. Retrieved from Singapore Tourism Board website: http://www.yoursingapore.com/dining-drinks-singapore/local-dishes/chilli-crab.html
16. Chuang, P. M. (2005, August 6). Another serving of chilli crab and Tiger Beer for New Yorkers. The Business Times, p. 1; Lee, C. W. (2006, July 19). Recipe for greater recognition. Today, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.