Singapore Chilli Crab is one of Singapore’s greatest culinary inventions. It came into being in the mid 20th century, when a pushcart owner decided to add some ketchup to the crabs he and his wife were selling. The rest as they say … !
Originally published on LinsFood.com in 2011.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Table of contents
Singapore Chilli Crab
Singapore Chilli Crab always makes the world’s top 50 list of foods to try. And apparently, the first dish requested by celebrities when they set foot in Singapore.
And it’s no wonder really. The sweet, creamy and briny flavour of the crab is allowed to shine on the shoulders of a sauce simply flavoured with local ingredients, complemented by the tang of tomatoes and tamarind.
Seafood Centres in Singapore
Growing up in Singapore, one of my favourite treats was heading out to the East Coast Park Seafood Centre. It used to be the place to go for seafood and the star of the show was always the Singapore Chilli Crab. But one never stopped there.
A typical order would consist of the chilli crab, a mixed vegetable soup called chap chye, crispy baby squid and kangkung belacan, all served with plain boiled rice. At least these were the dishes I almost always had.
Don’t panic, it wasn’t all for me! As with all Asian meals, everyone helps himself to a little bit of everything.
Live Crab or Cooked Crab?
I used to insist that people use fresh crabs for this recipe, because the light, sweet flavour of the crab is best enjoyed when it’s cooked once. However, this is no longer the case, for 2 reasons:
- cooked crab meat is still able to take on flavours and doesn’t lose its texture if cooked lightly
- not everyone has access to live crabs
Mud crabs are the perfect type for this recipe, by the way, but there’s no reason why you can’t enjoy it with whatever you can get your hands on.
If you can’t get crab still in its shell, by all means use crab meat for our Singapore Chilli Crab, but preferably those sold in the fridge aisle of supermarkets. Canned crab meat to me, just doesn’t cook well even if it’s perfect in sandwiches.
Chop the Crab or Leave Whole?
This depends completely on you and the size of the crabs you’ve got. If your crabs are really big, like the ones I’m using here, then yes, I suggest you break them up. It makes it easier to cook and eat the crabs.
All you do after cleaning, is detach the 2 big claws, then split the body in half, that’s it.
If your crabs are small, leave them whole after cleaning if you like.
Specialist Ingredients for cooking Singapore Chilli Crab
Pronounced tow (as in town) – chi – yo (as in oh!). The last 2 syllables are pronounced quickly, as if they are one.
Taucheo is a soybean product, in which the soybeans have been salted and fermented. In its most basic form, it’s made with only the beans, salt and water.
It lends a deep, earthy, sometimes smoky depth to dishes and is widely used in East and South East Asia. The Singapore Chilli Crab is just one example of a recipe it’s used in.
You should be able to get it at your local East Asian store (Chinese, Japanese, Korean), and most certainly online. You can even use the Korean version, which is sold as a paste and called doenjang.
This is the one I tend to use. I was buying this particular one by Yeo’s when I was still living in Singapore, practically a lifetime ago now.
Substitute for Taucheo
Use the darkest miso paste you can find, as it will have the same deep flavours we are looking for.
If you cannot get miso in any form, you can also use hoisin sauce as a last resort. However, you must bear in mind that hoisin sauce is a little on the sweet side, so go easy.
Tamarind is a souring ingredient. It is a tropical fruit that grows as a pod on the tamarind tree. The tamarind tree fruit is a (long) bean-shaped pod containing a pulp with lots of seeds.
We mash this pulp with water to create the “juice” that is extensively used in many cuisines around the world for its souring properties. And, you’ll be interested to know that tamarind is also used for medicinal properties and believe or not, even as a polishing agent!
Along with the tomatoes we use, tamarind adds a lovely tang to the Singapore Chilli Crab.
Substitute for Tamarind
The best substitute for tamarind is the humble clear vinegar. It does the souring job without adding its own identity, an important factor in today’s Singapore Chilli Crab.
Lime juice and lemon juice are souring agents too. However, they are citrusy. So, inevitably, lime and lemon juice will pass on that citrusy flavour to your dish.
The Singapore Chilli Crab is not a difficult recipe to cook, as you can see by the examples from my readers below. Get all your ingredients ready, as you should for everything, really. The actual cooking process is very, very quick. If you have any questions at all, don’t hesitate to drop me a line with a comment below, or via email.
And on that note, shall we get cooking?
Images by LinsFoodies
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Singapore Chilli Crab Recipe and Video
- chopping board
- A large wok with lid.
- 2 live medium sized crabs total weight about 2 kg (4.4 lb) if you can only get cooked, that's fine too
- 2 tomatoes quartered
- 2 Tbsp tomato ketchup
- 2 Tbsp tamarind see how to prepare below
- 4 Tbsp water (for the tamarind)
- 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp white sugar (if you need it)
- 125 ml water
- 1 egg lightly beaten
- 1 small handful fresh coriander leaves (cilantro)
- 1 small handful chives chopped
Grind to a paste
- 1 medium onion
- 3 red Thai or any bird's eye chillies
- 3 cloves garlic
- 5 cm fresh ginger
- 2 Tbsp taucheo (soybean paste) or use same amount of hoisin sauce (found in supermarkets)
To prepare the tamarind
- Soak the pulp in the water for 10-20 minutes. The hotter the water, the less time you need.
- After the soaking time, give it all good mix, squeezing the pulp with your fingers, then strain through a medium or large mesh sieve. Discard the seeds and pulp.
Let's prep the crabs
- If your crabs have been kept in the fridge, they should be dopey, hardly moving and easy to handle. Still, watch out for the claws if they've not been tied up. Turn the crab over and locate the pointy flap. Lift it, and you'll see a small hole.
- Using a sharp, pointy knife or screwdriver, plunge it straight through until you touch the shell on the other side. This should kill it instantly.
- Flip the crab over, drain the yucky liquid and give it a rinse under running water. You can halve it and separate the legs and claws if you like, especially if your crabs are large. You'll see in the video that it's easier to fit them into the wok to cook, when they are large.
Let's get cooking
- Heat oil in a large wok and fry the paste ingredients until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes, water, ketchup, tamarind, then crabs and give it all a good stir. Cover and cook for 8-10 minutes until the crabs are done.
- Taste and add more salt if needed. If you find the sauce too spicy, add some sugar.
- Add the egg and gently mix it in for 20 seconds, and turn the heat off and take the wok off the heat. The egg doesn’t want very long as you want wisps of it, not scrambled bits.
- Garnish with the herbs and serve with rice.