Singapore’s most popular dish is arguably the chili crab, an expensive meal in a country perhaps best known for being expensive. It’s a hefty mud crab plucked apart and prepared in a true blend of Chinese and Indian styles, smothered in a curry- and cumin-based tomato chili sauce, mixed with beaten eggs and topped with cilantro and a bowl of rice. The whole thing basically screams of Singapore.
We were sitting in an Internet cafe near the train station at Johor Bahru, Malaysia, about spitting distance from the city-state. We didn’t have much time, but assumed that Googling best chili crabs singapore would yield resultsânamely the TripAdvisor post ranked third from the top wherein one user suggested Kim’s Cuisine on Beach Road, which had allegedly won numerous accolades.
We obviously missed that the post was dated September 13, 2005.
Not only does Kim’s Cuisine definitely not exist, but what does exist there isn’t even a seafood restaurant. The owner of whatever pork joint now resides at 101 Beach Road is a slender Chinese-Singaporean with early wrinkles and a blue apron. He tried to be helpful. Go straight, he told us, pointing back in the direction we came from, and at the end of the street, there is chili crab.
Hopeful, we trod past the multicolored colonial-era buildings and found another Chinese restaurant. We’re looking for chili crab, I tried again. But the woman there shook her head. She pointed left, down a small alley and at a wide blue-bannered diner. There, she said. That’s a seafood restaurant. They’ll have it there.
To detail our entire wild crab chase would be as obnoxious now as it was then; suffice it to say that the Chinese restaurant lady was wrong, and the guy from the next diner was wrong, and every one of the restaurant owners we spoke to after that were wrong, which gave us some cause for panic, because our flight was now four hours away and we were getting very, very hungry.
Suffice it to say that every one of the restaurant owners we spoke to was wrong, which gave us some cause for panic, because our flight was now four hours away and we were getting very, very hungry.
Our chili crab hunt was to be the last thing we did in Singapore. We spent most of three unfortunately rainy days in the city’s gorgeous and massive museums and libraries, basking in a tsunami of information, recognizing that we’d soon forget more than half the facts before us but nevertheless trying to educate ourselves by some sort of travel-induced osmosis. The buildings are, anyway, incomparably sophisticated; the National Library for example is made up of two elegant glass towers drowned in lush green trees. The National Museum is a massive and many-pillared mansion in a picturesque field, complete with futuristic outdoor escalators unnecessarily moving citizens up and down short hills.
We settled on seeing the real Singapore by strategically finding a budget hotel near Geylang Road, known for prostitutes and cheap Chinese food. But rather than stay there for our last supper, we decided on the mythical Kim’s Cuisine, which had obviously not worked, and was now cause for some distress. That is, until my girlfriend pointed out…
Isn’t that a seafood restaurant over there?
…which I dismissed automatically, based on the day’s record and the fact that there were no fish tanks out front, which I’d become accustomed to in East Asia.
Are you sure? she pressed, which made me turn and notice what I’d failed to notice before: that the walls inside were painted with murals of dolphins, turtles and an octopus, signifying that, okay, yes, maybe she’s right, it is probably a seafood restaurant.
Any skepticism we had about the mostly empty little spot, called Maggie Thai and Chinese Restaurant, was squashed by the relief that on their menu was a photo of the elusive chili crab, doused in its signature red sauce. Twenty Singaporean dollars for one; $36 for two.
We took the deal: one chili and one Thai vermicelli crab, accompanied by cold Thai tea and fresh longan juice, a sweet drink made from crushed Southeast Asian fruits the size of chestnuts.
When the crabs arrived, the presentation did not disappoint. The thick sauce looked spicier than it really was, with particles of red and yellow mingling with miscellaneous bits of whiteness, either egg or very mushy crab flesh.
We were given every conceivable utensilâchopsticks, knives, forks, spoonsâand gunked up all of them before realizing that our fingers worked best. We quickly turned to the Thai vermicelli, slathered in a muddy brown paste and covered in green onions and glass noodles. We were at a total loss as to how to eat the noodles, our chopsticks now filthy. So we savagely ripped apart the shells and sucked out crab meat like a pair of Neanderthals, licking noodle sauce from our fingertips and relishing each tender bite in satisfaction. It was very gross and probably unpleasant for the people sitting next to us.
When we finished, an hour later, we both sat there, bloated and contemplative, quietly basking in the sadness that comes with the end of a truly excellent travel meal. Who knows when, if ever, we’ll be back in Singapore? Or be able to shell out 40 bucks for dinner? But this is how travel taunts us: it shows us something we’ve never seen, heard or tasted before, makes us curse and work for it, only to leave us wanting more.
Photos by Michael Fraiman