Jumbo Seafood lost the Hawker Heroes challenge, their chilli crab looks (and tastes) great to HungryGoWher | Photo: Julia Khoo
So, Gordon Ramsay’s chilli crab is better than the version voted by the public. Wah, some old local chef must be turning in his grave.
The recent SingTel Hawker Heroes event was a simple idea – get Michelin-starred celebrity Ramsay to pit his skills against three top local hawkers. On the HungryGoWhere-hosted poll site, 2.5 million votes elected Tian Tian Chicken Rice, 328 Katong Laksa and Jumbo Seafood Restaurant (for their chilli crab – they aren’t hawkers but it is a street dish). A thousand people can then sample the dishes and vote.
At the end of the throwdown last Sunday, 7 July, Ramsay won on his chilli crab dish, but the Singapore hawkers won the other two dishes, winning the overall battle.
“A good chilli crab dish must definitely have fresh crabs. The sauce should have a well-constructed balance of spiciness (from a good sambal), umami (from the tomato paste), savouriness (from a good stock), tanginess (from the vinegar, lime or tamarind), sweetness and eggy-ness. The sauce should be thick but not overly so."
Mr. Ang Kiam Meng of Jumbo Seafood Restaurant had been in the business for over three decades and his restaurant is known for their chilli crab. The unrelenting crowds each evening at their flagship restaurant at East Coast Seafood Centre is testament to this. In the post-challenge interview, Mr. Ang graciously mentioned that he was extremely honoured to have even been voted for this event, and that Singapore’s food culture is really the winner here.
Chilli crabs was created by the former Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant chefs and owners when their spice-loving East-side residents suggested they upped the spice tempo of their tomato sauce crabs. So chef Mdm Cher Yam Tian did just that with chilli sauce. But it was the Dragon Phoenix Restaurant boss, Mr. Hooi Kok Wai – one of the Four Heavenly Kings of the Chinese culinary industry in Singapore – who took the dish to dizzying heights by adding a symphony of ingredients, tastes and textures.
In my view, a good chilli crab dish must definitely have fresh crabs. The sauce should have a well-constructed balance of spiciness (from a good sambal), umami (from the tomato paste), savouriness (from a good stock), tanginess (from the vinegar, lime or tamarind), sweetness and eggy-ness. The sauce should be thick but not overly so.
Aside from the above masters, who else could Ramsay have taken on? His contest version, done with the help of an army of cooks from a local catering house, was robust and very spicy. Many voters had no qualms when they cast their vote for Jumbo, but, as with every contest, alternative suggestions crop up. This time, of course, it was of other worthy chilli crab hawkers.
So here are three hawkers and tze char folk who, in my opinion, are able to make Ramsay sweat and swear an equal amount, if not more. What do you think?
Keng Eng Kee
Chilli crab with distinct rempah sauce
Even on a sleepy Monday night, the tables at this family tze char restaurant is packed to the rafters. Almost everyone – those who are smart enough to come earlier – has a platter of their signature chilli crab. The Sri Lanka crabs the Liew family use aren’t the monstrous variety but big enough, and cheaper. Their sauce is thick, has a distinct rempah (Malay for ‘mixed spices’) fragrance and beautifully balanced with the stock and tamarind. It makes you want to make dip the steamed mantou (Chinese bun or bread) in first, before tucking into the crabs. It was so evocative that after one bite, Spanish celebrity chef Jose Andres asked for a photo with the chef.
Keng Eng Kee | Address: 124 Bukit Merah Lane 1, #01-136 | Tel: 62721038 | Opening hours: Daily 11.30am-1.45pm, 5-10.45pm
Leng Heng BBQ Seafood & Claypot Deluxe
Claypot chilli crab
In 2005, this stall was christened a Makansutra Hawker Legend by Makansutra, the Singapore Tourism Board and National Environment Agency. American food reality show, Top Chef, brought their seventh season's finalists over to film a segment, and were inspired and bowled over by, among others, their chilli crabs which are served in a claypot. This is not a polite tourist version; these Teochew street food masters created a thicker-than-usual, intense, spicy and moreish sauce which is almost sadistic. Like Keng Eng Kee, they don’t rely on huge crabs (about 700 to 800 grams) but aficionados know it’s all about freshness, sweetness and the eggy sauce.
Leng Heng BBQ Seafood & Claypot Deluxe | Address: Stall 6, East Cost Lagoon Food Village | Tel: 64450513 | Opening hours: Fri-Wed 2pm-1am
Mattar Road Seafood BBQ
Chilli crab with pungent sambal
The owner, Mr. Ng Hung Leng, who has a daughter teaching at a local culinary school, takes two days off a week. These days are not meant for rest, but for preparing and allowing the giant cauldron of sambal (that he makes to last the whole week) to rest. The sauce stinks up the entire hawker centre, but no one complains. It is very bold, spicy and perfectly balanced with tang and umami, plus sweetness. American celebrity chef Rick Bayless, known for his championing of Mexican street food, once tucked into Mr. Ng’s name chilli and pepper crabs and declared it the “best meal I’ve ever had” through his Twitter account.
Mattar Road Seafood BBQ | Address: #01-63, Old Airport Road Food Centre | Tel: 64472798 | Opening hours: Thu-Mon 3-11pm
KF Seetoh, an entrepreneur-photojournalist, is the founder of Makansutra who endeavours to celebrate Asian food culture & lifestyle since 1997, through regional food publications, website & mobile apps, eateries, events, TV shows and consultancy. Seetoh has written for many local and international publications, such as The New Paper and Huffington Post. He is also the curator of The World Street Food Congress, which launched in May 2013