SINGAPORE – Until recently, the woman behind that iconic Singapore dish of chilli crab would order what she created in the 1950s without telling anyone, just to check on its quality.
Madam Cher Yam Tian, who cooked the first version for her husband, a policeman, died on Wednesday at age 90. She was fragile in the last months, and had a lung infection which developed into pneumonia, her granddaughter Regina Lim, 39, tells The Straits Times.
The chef, who started as an unlicensed hawker, is survived by four children, four grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Her sons Roland Lim, 65, and Richard Lim, 60, continue her legacy at Roland Restaurant in Marine Parade Central. They have four generations of customers who flock to the 1,000-seat restaurant to have chilli crab done the same way since Madam Cher nailed the recipe.
Mr Roland Lim tells ST at his mother’s wake that she would give him an earful if the colour of the sauce or the taste were not right.
“That’s how we have maintained standards,” he says.
Ms Lim adds: “She would tell my dad that he needs to improve. And when it was right, she would say, ‘Mmm, very good.’ The recipe was very close to her heart.”
Mr Roland Lim says that his father, the late Mr Lim Choon Ngee, loved to fish and catch crabs at the beach in East Coast. His mother would steam the crabs, but he asked if she would do something different.
She came up with chilli crab, using tomato ketchup, chilli sauce and other condiments. Her husband thought it was novel, and she began tweaking the recipe and cooking it for neighbours in their kampung.
When they, too, told her it was the perfect recipe, she started selling it from a small stall with two tables, in East Coast Road. That was in the 1950s.
In 1963, the Lims opened a restaurant at 514 Upper East Coast Road, calling it Palm Beach after the trees lining the beach.
Mr Roland Lim, who has been working in the business since he was 11, says the dish took off in such a big way that restaurants up and down the stretch began selling their own versions of chilli crab. His mother, he adds, was never afraid of copycats.
“In fact, she would say, ‘Good, let them copy. I’m even more happy because everyone is talking about chilli crab,’” he says. “My father would close the restaurant on Sundays, the best day for business. He thought it was good for us to close, so that other people could try chilli crab at the other restaurants. ‘They will know the difference and come back,’ he would say.”
Even when chilli crab controversy broke out in 2009, when a Malaysian minister claimed that the dish was one of several wrongly attributed to other countries, Madam Cher was calm, her son says.
“I thought my mother would be angry, but she said people know the truth,” he adds.
Local food maven K.F. Seetoh tells ST that Madam Cher lit a fire for the dish.
“She had the audacious idea of cooking the crabs in a sauce that had a bolder flavour than the crab,” he says, adding that chef Hooi Kok Wai, one of the four heavenly kings of the Singapore restaurant scene in the 1960s, then took the dish a step further, adding sambal, stock, vinegar, starch and egg.
The Lims sold the name Palm Beach in 1985, but kept that all-important recipe for the sauce. They emigrated to New Zealand, where they settled in Christchurch. Mr Roland Lim says he came back soon after, because his wife could not get used to life there. He was with Palm Beach for a spell, before setting up Roland Restaurant in 2000.
His mother came back to Singapore to help him set it up, and for years, would travel back and forth. In 2010, when her husband was in poor health, they came back for good. He died 10 years ago.
Today, Roland and Richard Lim are the ones who make the sauce at the restaurant. Ms Lim and her brother Justin, 35, both of whom also know the recipe, are gearing up to continue their grandmother’s legacy. That would also include dishes such as prawns fried in caramelised dark soya sauce.
Mr Roland Lim says: “She hates short cuts. For the black sauce prawns, you have to fry it until it’s a bit charred. If the cook does it wrongly, she’ll know at once, and ask who cooked it.”
He credits his mother for steering the family business in the right direction.
“During the pandemic, we were struggling like crazy, “ he says. “I told her I wanted to close. She said I could not do that. Don’t worry, she told me, stay strong.”
At Madam Cher’s wake were two retired nurses, Ms Alynn Lim and Ms Shirley Toh, who met her in 1975, when she was warded in Singapore General Hospital for surgery. Over the years, they became friends.
Ms Alynn Lim, who even visited Madam Cher in New Zealand, says: “She had no airs, and we talked easily and about everything under the sun.”