Instant Asia: the nickname is given to Singapore by detractors who deplore the country's rush toward modernization and by admirers who acclaim its uniqueness as a microcosm of Asia. But the one attribute that transcends both criticism and praise is the fabulous food Singapore's poliglot culture has produced.
Singapore's multiracial blending of Malay, Indian and Chinese cuisine never yields "pure" versions of the dishes of those three cultures. And the so-called nonya cooking of the Straits Chinese Paranakan (an ethnic group that evolved many years ago when Chinese immigrants working in the tin mines and rubber plantations took native Malay wives) is a unique combination of Chinese techniques and ingredients, Malaysian spices and European seasonings such as ketchup and worchestershire sauce.
Amid this culinary hybridization, one dish stands out as typically Singaporean -- chili crabs, made of sweet local crabs and spicy tomato-and-vinegar spiced sauce.
Surprisingly, chili crabs are rarely on the menu at the downtown restaurants, plain or fancy. Thus, many tourists miss a treat because sampling this dish requires a 15-minute drive from the city along Upper East Coast Drive to a row of simple restaurants that once lined the seashore. Now they are considerably inland as a result of land reclamation that turned the sea into an agreeable residential and recreational area. While the drive itself provides glimpses of the once common rural lifestyle of the Malay kampongs, the real reason to go is for the crabs.
Kheng Luck Seafood, the most famous, and the other huge, undecorated, low-priced restaurants are packed with boisterous Singapore families devouring the delectable crabs and greedily sopping up every last bit of the savory red sauce with thick slices of fresh French bread. Many diners feast at the outdoor tables to catch the sea breeze for a little relief from the heat.
Chesapeake Bay blue crabs or the blues that are shipped to the Washington area from the Carolinas, Louisiana and Texas all winter are perfect candidates for chili crab treatment. The only difficulty cooks accustomed to picking steamed crabs may encounter is the necessity to clean the crabs while they are alive. But a 15-minute stint in the freezer will tranquilize the crabs, making them easier for the squeamish to handle.
A light dusting of flour, a quick frying in hot peanut oil (for the most authentic flavor) and a brief simmering in the pungent sauce produces a dish that is a worthy rival to Maryland spiced steamed crabs. In fact, to some tastes they surpass our local specialty. And believe it or not, they are even sloppier to eat.
No exotic ingredients relegate this dish to the category of "difficult and inconvenient," and it is a wonderful way to stretch a few crabs to serve a lot of hungry people. For variety, large shrimp in the shell can be stir fried and coated with the same sauce. SINGAPORE-STYLE CHILI CRABS (2 servings) 6 small crabs or 3 large crabs Flour for dredging Oil for deep frying 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, finely chopped 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 4 red chilies, chopped 1 1/2 cups chicken broth 3/4 cup tomato sauce 2 teaspoons vinegar 3 teaspoons soy sauce 1 tablespoon sugar Black pepper to taste 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 tablespoons water 1 egg, beaten
To clean crabs, twist off large claws and crack lightly. Pry off top shell. Discard gills and other spongy matter. Break body in half and again into quarters if the crabs are large. Rinse claws and bodies under cold running water.
Lightly dust crabs with flour. Heat oil in wok or large skillet until very hot. Deep fry crab sections, a few at a time, until shells turn red, 1-2 minutes. Remove with slotted spoon and repeat until all crabs are fried.
Drain all but 2 tablespoons of oil from pan. Add ginger, garlic and chilies and stir fry 30 seconds. Carefully add chicken broth and bring to boil. Add crabs, cover and simmer 5 minutes. Add tomato sauce, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar and pepper. Cover and simmer 5 minutes. Combine cornstarch with water. Add to mixture and stir until sauce thickens. Stir in egg and serve immediately with French bread or rice.