Singapore’s Chilli Crab is one of the world’s most famous seafood dishes. Visitors to the city-state are urged to try it and – somewhat unsurprisingly – the recipe has even been the subject of spat between Singapore and Malaysia. In 2009, Malaysia’s Tourism Minister claimed that it was actually a Malaysian dish that was hijacked by Singapore.
All this might lead you to think that Chilli Crab is some classic and ancient dish. But all the available evidence suggests that it started out as a hawker dish around 1956 and only became popular in the 1960s when small restaurants and stalls started serving it.
It is not, to be perfectly honest, my favourite crab dish because I find that its sweet, tomato-based sauce is cloying and can often overpower the flavour of the crab. But, on the other hand, the sauce does mask the lack of flavour in an indifferent crab. And you can do interesting things with it.
Last week, at a food festival at the Gurgaon Leela, I had Chef Richard Ng’s version (he is from Singapore’s Fullerton Hotel) in which he combined the crab and the sauce with the buns served to soak up the gravy. Richard put the chilli crab (without the shell) inside a giant bun and fried it, till the outside was golden. It was nice but it was still Chilli Crab.
The popularity – and relatively recent origin – of Singapore’s most famous dish reminds us that as much as we love it now, few people in Asia have grown up eating much crab at home. And our parents ate even less of it.
K T Achaya, India’s great food historian, conceded reluctantly there was no recorded shellfish tradition in India. In fact, he wrote, “references to seafood in literature are scanty”. And Achaya quoted the Italian traveller Niccolao Manucci who visited India in the 17th Century: “As for shellfish they are regarded among the most impure things and are not used except by the pariahs.”
This is strong stuff and Manucci almost certainly got it wrong. I’m pretty sure that coastal communities all over India did like shellfish but sadly, noble foreign travellers in that era stuck to royal courts and the food of the nobility. So the poor fishermen and their diets never got a look in.
What is true, however, is that while prawns and clams may have been a part of the coastal diet, there are few great Indian recipes for crab. Most of us still don’t even know what kind of crabs we are eating or what the origins of famous restaurant dishes are.
Let’s take the coastal restaurants of Mumbai. The most ordered dish at many of them is Crab Butter Garlic, a dish created in the 1970s and 1980s using an Indian-Chinese style sauce (though one as yet unknown in China!) along with copious quantities of ajinomoto. And yet, this is still passed off as “Mangalorean food” to credulous foreign tourists.
I spoke to Ananda Solomon who researched home-style coastal dishes when he was setting up Bombay’s Konkan Cafe. Ananda thinks that while fishermen have always eaten crab, they have tended to barbecue whole crabs on open fires rather than invent elaborate curries.
His theory is that crabs only became a significant part of the cuisines of western India in the colonial era. The East Indian community around Bassein (not far from Mumbai) has baked crab recipes that are clearly European-influenced. Even the Goan crab tradition appears to have been created by the Portuguese.
One consequence of the relatively recent introduction of crab into our cuisine is that few of us understand the various types of crab and how different they taste. In America, blue crabs are a favourite with gourmets because the meat is so delicate that you can steam it and eat it without butter or any added flavouring.
Then there is the Dungeness crab, found in Scotland (where it is highly prized) and in Alaska, where it is grown to a large size and exported all over the world. The Atlantic rock crab is the sweet one that they use for crab cocktails. And so on.
In much of Asia, we lack the sort of variety found in cold water coastlines. Most Indian chefs use the mud crab, which is often found in fresh water but is regularly fished where the river meets the sea. There are sea-water crabs too but they have thin legs and therefore less meat.
You won’t hear much about crab fishing because – though nobody is keen on announcing this – many, if not most, of the crabs you get in restaurants are actually farmed, not fished in the wild. As is true of all seafood, farmed crabs do not have the flavour of wild crabs. But most Indians are not familiar with the true taste of crab so we don’t really mind.
All we care about is size and the farming process allows breeders to grow the crabs to largish sizes. Then, the crabs are put into cages and despatched, when they are still alive, all over India.
This leads to another great ritual of seafood restaurants: the presentation of the live crabs. I once shot a TV show at the original Gajalee in Mumbai. They brought so many crawling, angry crabs to my table for me to choose from that it was almost scary. Some people probably like the idea of selecting their own crabs but personally, I feel a little guilty: like some Mafia boss deciding which hapless victim will be assassinated.
You are also expected to enjoy the ritual of cracking open a crab and pulling out the meat. But I’m always slightly confused by the logic of the process. First of all, if your crab has been cooked in a special sauce then that sauce will not have penetrated the shell. So to get any flavour from the dish, you need to take the meat out and then dunk it in the sauce.
On the other hand, when you order your crab off the shell, the delicate meat is totally overpowered by the sauce. So that doesn’t make much sense either. I guess, it boils down to a matter of personal preference.
Not everyone likes the idea of a large crab with a formidable shell. For those of faint heart, there is the soft shell crab which you can just pop into your mouth, shell and all. Ananda used to do a mean soft-shell crab at both The Thai Pavilion and the Konkan Cafe but the most famous version now is probably the Indian Accent dish with gunpowder and coconut strips that Manish Mehrotra won Foodistan with.
For years I thought the soft-shell crab was a different species or breed. In fact, most breeds can be found in a soft-shell version. What happens is this: periodically, the crab gets too big for its shell and sheds it. It then grows a new shell. It is at this time that fishermen remove it from the water and sell it as a soft shell crab. There is skill involved: you have to know exactly when the new shell is thick enough to count as a shell but tender enough to eat. And you have to either eat (or freeze) a soft shell crab quickly – typically within a few hours.
According to Ananda, he used to source his soft-shell crabs locally but suppliers no longer sell them. (I imagine there is more profit for crab farmers to let the crabs reach their full size.) So most, if not all, the soft-shell crabs you see in India are imported. This goes against the freshness principle essential to this kind of crab which explains why chefs use batter-frying to cover up for any defects in the taste.
Crabs are almost always expensive so there is a large industry that deals with crab flavours or fake crabs. For instance, the classic American crab cake is usually made from really fresh crab mixed with only a few bread crumbs to hold the cake together. But typically, the Asian crab cake has very little crab. Most Thai restaurants will use another kind of minced fish and then top the mixture with just a little crab for flavour.
And there’s fake crab. If you’ve seen crab stick sushi on a menu, do not order it. Ninety per cent of the time, it is made with commercial crab sticks. These are assembled from the cheapest fish on the market, artificially flavoured to taste of crab and then coloured (also artificially). Rare is the sushi chef – except at very high-end places – who makes his own genuine crab sticks.
So how should you enjoy crab?
Well, anyway you like. It’s expensive and a luxury. So none of us will eat it very often. But when I do eat it, I prefer one of two ways.
I like the meat of fresh crab, without too much added flavour. Or, I trust very good cooks like Manish, Ananda or the chefs at Gajalee to find a way of adding masala without losing the sweet, delicate flavour of the meat.
Singapore Chilli Crab? Crab Butter Garlic? Truly famous dishes, for sure!
But they’re not for me, thank you!