Fiery crustaceans best addressed with a pinch of spice
RAYMOND Yin is a big fan of chilli crabs. The executive sous chef of Singapore’s Shangri-la Hotel is demonstrating how to cook the crustaceans in an open kitchen at Line, the hotel’s groovy and award-winning interactive restaurant.
At Line, diners get to choose their meals — from noodles and pasta to curries and stir-fries — at a series of food stations and in most cases the hot dishes, even at breakfast, are prepared to order. There are 70 chefs on hand, including one who supervises a 1m-tall chocolate fountain.
But I am even closer to the bespoke: Yin is starting the process from near-zero, hacking the crabs to bits with the sharpest square-bladed chopper I’ve seen outside that used by Chinese expert Chen Kenichi on SBS’s IronChef.
Yin, in his early 60s, is an expert in such matters: he has been a professional chef for 36 years and joined the Shangri-la Singapore in 1987; his daughter is also a chef in Singapore. ‘‘ But for fine dining,’’ he smiles.
Smash goes the chopper: ‘‘ One, two, smacko,’’ he laughs. He explains that the females carry the roe but the males have more meat. These are mud crabs from the South China Sea, brought in daily from Indonesia, and costing about $S18 ($14) a kilogram, depending on volume of supply.
Yin heats about 10ml of Chinese cooking wine in an industrial-sized wok; the gas burner is much more powerful than its domestic counterpart and I watch its leaping flames with envy. With a wok such as this, any home cook could juggle a stirfry in seconds.
He browns an onion in the oil and adds the crab pieces. After about two minutes of wok and roll, he pours in a tablespoon each of Chinese wine and sesame oil. Then in go two tablespoons each of sugar and oyster sauce, half a tablespoon of soy sauce and a generous dollop of chilli sauce. Then comes the secret ingredient. It is not eye of newt or toe of frog, or even one of those mysterious oriental roots that look like shrunken babies’ hands. Yin produces it with a magician’s flourish: tomato ketchup. He up-ends about a quarter of the contents of what looks like a 350g bottle. (Things are moving at too cracking a pace for specifics.)
Yin makes no apology for using massproduced ingredients (the chilli sauce is from a bottle, too) and simply says Chinese chefs in Singapore use tomato ketchup ‘‘ all the time’’.
Next, in go 50ml of calamansi lime juice, 150g of fresh red chilli (rough-chopped and blended), 50g of blended garlic and 30g of pressed ginger. Things are steaming so merrily that the glass panels around his fiery cooking station have misted up. A 500ml splodge of chicken stock is added and the wok is covered and left to burble merrily for about seven minutes.
The crab has turned from grey-green to sunset orange; time to add a dash of corn starch to thicken the sauce, and an egg. Quick as a whisk, the crab is transferred from the wok to a white serving plate and garnished with coriander leaves, curls of spring onion and strips of bird’s-eye chilli.
Yin says if you visit Singapore and don’t eat chilli crab, then you can’t really say you have experienced Singapore.
He also recommends sauces such as black pepper, oyster or, for a lighter flavour, spring onion with ginger.
Chilli crab is a signature dish at the Shangri-la’s Shang Palace restaurant, which specialises in Cantonese and Sichuan cuisine, and also appears from time to time on the seafood platters of Line’s dinner buffet.
The cafes at the Seafood Centre on the East Coast Parkway are good venues, too, to try chilli crab.
This is no-frills style but great fun, with paper bibs supplied and plain buns ( man tau ) to mop up the rich sauce. Last visit to Singapore, I tried the centre’s Red House Seafood, which serves Sri Lankan crabs in chilli or black pepper and boasts famous past diners of the ilk of members of U2. The fare was excellent, although there are cheaper alternatives in the centre. (Crabs are at a fixed price per kilo but you’ll pay more for air-conditioned surrounds.)
Meanwhile, behind the scenes at Line, Yin is pleased with the progress I am making cracking the crabs and gouging the meat. Then he looks at his watch. It’s only 11am but there’s preparation to be done for the lunch service. I take my leave as he bustles towards the bench, no doubt to sharpen that lethal cleaver.