Have you ever seen a stuffed toy which comes with its own recipe?
The hospitality kit at my hotel at Singapore had just that. A tiny red stuffed toy in the shape of a crab. It had a ‘Uniquely Singapore’ label attached to it. The label read ‘Chilli (sic) crab – one of the most famous dishes you can savour in Singapore, where the world comes to feast’. It also had a recipe of a dish called ‘chilly crab’. This was apparently the national dish of Singapore.
Just the welcome gift to make a foodie feel at home.
I set off on my quest for chilly crab. My first night was with some Indian friends who took me to an Indian restaurant at Clark Quay. Clark Quay is the redeveloped river front in Singapore which is its food Ibiza. You will find many restaurants from all over the world. The food ranges from Mongolian to Thai to Italian and of course good old desi curry. The architecture is quite hip with glass, chrome and laser lights. It is quite an awesome and glitzy place.
Now here’s the thing. I never have Indian food when I am abroad so good bye to the telecaller Mr 22 nights/ 23 days Europe Darshan with Indian Maharaj. I must admit that the channa masala, naans and tikkas in the restaurant were fairly good. But the fact that I don’t even remember the name of the restaurant reflects what I thought of it.
So night one was Indian with no sign of chilly crab. The next afternoon I disassociated from my friends who wanted to go malling and as I went to Museum Of Asian Civilisation (that’s the part of me which we Bengalis call aatel or intellectual). The museum was right in front of Boat Quay. Boat Quay was another reclaimed river front at Singapore. It is far more like the simple sister of Clark Quay. It has an array of open air restaurants facing the river front but doesn’t have the glamour and scale of Clark Quay.
I came fairly close to chilly crab here. I ordered the national dish here only to be told that there were no small crabs and the larger ones would be too big for not so little me. I left the place after having the most amazing prawn sambal there. They had done this dried red chilly based Indonesian dish to perfection with a few cubes of raw tomato giving just the right balance of tanginess. I had this with a fried rice which was not very different from what you get in Mumbai. So much for those who run down ‘Indian’ Chinese.
After Indian and Indonesian my next meal was Persian. I went with some folks I met at Singapore to Clark Quay one night where we went to a Persian restaurant called Shiraz. We had the most amazing feta cheese salad, the world’s best kebab platter which had a mix of venison, quail, fish, lamb and the most tender chicken ever. There was belly dancer there who through the haze of smoke and fumes of wine seemed to smack of Mebooba Mehbooba and Sholay.
The Singaporean national dish eluded me in my next meal too which was in a ‘hawker centre’ – Lau Pa Sat. The hawker centres in Singapore are food courtyards with an array of food stalls where you place your order and then eat in a central area. The dishes are fairly cheap and are popular with office folks, tourists and locals. Here I had an amazing Pilipino pork dish which had delectable chunks of pork in a creamy coconut sauce alone with some sticky rice. I also tried their pork satays which had a slightly tandoori’ish taste in comparison to the Malay version which is flavoured with crushed peanuts.
Our next dinner was hosted by a local Singaporean which was at the BIcentre. So would the revered chilly crab give us an audience? Missed again! We had some deceptively spicy clams, a stingray which was cooked partly in a lime marinade and partly in a red sambal paste, spicy prawn noodles. But no chilly crab!
It all came together in the banquet of the conference which I was attending. This was at a quaint restaurant called ‘No Signboard Restaurant’. The nine course dinner promised chilly crab at the end. I soldiered through the very soft and tantalising goose entrails, clams, prawns, venison cooked in a Chinese sauce and countless glasses of wine which the waitresses were refilling the way attendants replenish your glass of water in an Udipi.
Most at my table gave in by the time the chilly crabs appeared. I was the last man standing. Not for long though.
The chilly crab was a bit disappointing. The meat was a bit too ‘fish like’ for my taste. I did like the red sweetish gravy and dunked the sweet Chinese buns which come with in the gravy and quite enjoyed it. But overall, I think I would clearly prefer the butter pepper garlic crab at Mahesh in Bombay any day.
As my Singaporean sojourn came to an end it was clear that THIS was the food capital of the world. You get just about every cuisine there.
The national dish, chilly crab? Not hot and spicy enough for Indians I guess. I preferred the chilly crab that welcomed me to Singapore to the cooked version.