The Origin of Chilli Crab: It is as Local as Singlish

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What are the first five things that come to mind when you think of Singapore food? If Chilli Crab is not on your list, you’re not doing it right.

I mean, how glorious does this look?

Image: bonchan / Shutterstock.com

Image: giphy.com
Image: giphy.com

But even if you’re a fan of the dish, you might not know about its origin because you’re too busy enjoying it (like me). So here’s all you need to know.

One of the national dishes of Singapore (the other being Hainanese Chicken Rice), crabs are fried in oil and then cooked in sauce.

Even though it looks really red and spicy, it actually isn’t – the redness mostly comes from tomato paste instead of chilli.

The dish is typically served with buns (known as “man tou” to the locals), which are dipped into that delicious sauce.

Image: sg.openrice.com
Image: sg.openrice.com

You might not know this, but the Chilli Crab was invented in 1950 by Mdm Cher Yam Tian. Her husband, Mr Lim, would catch crabs along the East Coast Beach, and bring them home for dinner. Being born to Teochew families, they were used to eating plain steamed crabs.

Image: edmwimg.wordpress.com
Image: edmwimg.wordpress.com

And apparently, her husband was bored of that too. One day, Mr Lim asked her to change things up a little. She then started stir-frying the crabs, adding in bottled chilli and tomato sauce.

Friends loved the dish so much that they told her to start selling the dish.

Image: operationtubetop.blogspot.com
Image: operationtubetop.blogspot.com

So Mdm Cher went from cooking chilli crab in her kitchen to selling it from a pushcart. Then a stall on Upper East Coast Road. And finally, 15 years after creating her initial recipe, she opened the Palm Beach restaurant – which was very successful.

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Image: spiegel.de
Image: spiegel.de

However, the version of Chilli Crab that we are most familiar with was created by Hooi Kok Wai of Dragon Phoenix restaurant (who also created Yu Sheng!). He modified Mdm Cher’s original recipe to include eggs, vinegar, sambal, lemon juice, and tomato paste.

There you have it: a brief history about Chilli Crab. So the next time you’re out enjoying this delicious dish, remember who you have to thank!