With so much choice on offer, deciding what to eat in Singapore can feel like an epicurean odyssey. It would be completely unfair to name a singular meal as Singapore’s National Dish; after all, the population of the country is made up of individuals from a range of diverse (and delicious) heritages. The only way to discover what is truly the best of the nation’s food culture is to try them all, and this is a challenge that I am ready and willing to raise my hand for… except that I haven’t managed to get past the deliciousness of Singapore’s Chilli Crab.
Chilli Crab is a dish of Chinese heritage and is served as the whole crab, in a thick, rich, tomato-based gravy which is warmed with chilli (rather than hot with it). Chilli Crab can be found in most of the Chinese seafood centres and is best eaten with a group of people – all hands in, and all bibs on.
Part of the itinerary
For me, Chilli Crab is top of the list of what to eat in Singapore and it’s now a set part of the itinerary anytime I go: Monday – getting over jet lag at the National Botanic Gardens, a swim and a nap, then dinner at the Katong Hawker Markets; Tuesday – Peranakan Museum, Chilli Crab at Jumbo Seafood. In fact, I don’t say this flippantly but if I could go back in time to my previous visits when I wasn’t sure what to eat in Singapore and I hadn’t yet discovered the deliciousness that is Chilli Crab and rectify that oversight – I would do it! It’s one of those meals, where you wonder if you’ve built it up in your head to be better than it is and you happily discover that you have not.
Every time we’ve headed out to tick off the Chilli Crab itinerary point, we’ve been told by the Singaporean taxi driver what to eat in Singapore and where the best place is to get Chilli Crab. Naturally, these places have all been different, so while it is always good to get the recommendation, simply going to a busy place filled with locals is probably going to work a treat.
How to eat it
Just so you know, although Chilli Crab is absolutely what to eat when in Singapore, be aware that it’s for the brave:
- This is not a knife and fork meal; it is messy. Drippy, delicious gravy runs down your fingers and your wrists – don’t wear white or light-coloured clothes for Chilli Crab, and wear your bib.
- It probably won’t end up being a balanced meal. I mean, you can try… I have, but taking tummy room up with steamed greens made me sad; even the rice barely got a look-in. The perfect accompaniment is a basket of fried Chinese sandwich buns because, really, all you want is another vehicle for the excellent gravy. Did I mention the amazingly moreish gravy? Wear your bib.
- Do as you are told! If the wait-staff say two big crabs for the four of you, that’s what you will need. On our first Chilli Crab trip, we saw the huge crabs at the next table, and told the bemused waitress we’d only need one… and then we sheepishly ordered a second one half an hour later, and finished it too. If they say the crabs are smaller and you should have a whole one each, then that’s what you must do. You will wear the bib – it’s for your own good.
- Use the tools, don’t be scared! It’s a crime not to get the best bits of crab meat from the claws – and anyone looking at you is admiring your bravery and tenacity, so go for it! The crab-cracking tools will get pretty slippery, so wear your bib – you are not just in the splash zone – you are the splash zone.
- Hoard the little packages of wet wipes; you will need more than the one at each seat, and can bargain with them later when everyone is eyeing off the last big claw. You can thank me later.
- Do not be tricked into having Singapore-style Chilli Crab if you are not in Singapore! You will want to, believe me, but if you aren’t sitting in a crowded restaurant, wearing a bib, surrounded by plastic in the humid Singapore night air, smiling as you suck the gravy off the back of your wrist, you are not doing it right.
I’m not arrogant enough to say that Chilli Crab is the national dish, because I’m not Singaporean and traditionally I don’t play favourites, but it is most certainly what to eat when in Singapore. It’s iconic for good reason and I look forward to that good reason every time I visit. If you’re ever in Jumbo Seafood, look around and you may see me – I’ll be the tall Australian woman, wearing loose, dark-coloured clothes and a great big smile. I may have food on my face, but that’s OK; I unashamedly have my bib and probably all the wet wipes.
Have we whet your appetite? Take a spicy adventure with a small group tour from Thailand to Singapore.