Life In Food With Violet Oon: How to cook chilli crab

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SINGAPORE - The sand beneath my feet, swaying palms and the moon above - and a humongous dish of spicy chilli crab in front of me. This is one of the most romantic memories of my childhood in the 1950s, when Palm Beach did not mean Florida, but a little restaurant on the beach Bedok-side, along the east coast of Singapore.

"We're going to Palm Beach for chilli crab" became a rallying cry to gird our loins and get ready for an addictive assault on our senses - first, the taste of the red-hot chilli sauce; next, the battle with the crab claws and body to extract the very last bit of flesh; and, finally, the dipping of chunks of white bread into the thick, gooey, delicious sauce.

As a teenager, I learnt to cook chilli crab from my mother, who learnt it from Chef Sin Leong's cooking school in the 1960s.

This recipe stood me in good stead in 1988 through nine cities on a three-week Singapore Tourist Promotion Board media tour of the United States when I was first dubbed Singapore's Food Ambassador, dressed in sarong kebaya and carrying a wedding bakul (traditional Peranakan basket).

In the early 2000s, this recipe brought me to the Tiger Beer Chilli Crab festival in London's Brick Lane and New York's Brooklyn, then to Dubai.

What better Singapore dish with which to launch my first series of cooking videos with The Straits Times than the beloved chilli crab?

Fifty years ago in September 1971, I walked through the doors of Times House in Kim Seng Road to start a career as a reporter at the New Nation, a newly launched afternoon newspaper.

It was a world of typewriters where a newspaper page was composed letter by letter - no mobile phones, no computers and no social media.

As reporters, we were the window to the world for our readers. I morphed from an arts and music critic as well as a feature writer into a food reviewer, food writer, recipe curator and chef.

With this series, I feel I have come full circle. Happy 50th anniversary to myself as a reporter - back where I started, showcasing our life in Singapore through food.

Chilli Crab

"We're going to Palm Beach for chilli crab" became a rallying cry to gird our loins and get ready for an addictive assault on our senses. ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH


500g mud crab (1 whole crab)

10 cloves garlic, peeled

8-10 fresh red chillies

1 plant spring onion

3 cups vegetable oil

3-5 Tbs plain flour

2 eggs

3 limes (limau kesturi, known as calamansi)

For sauce

1 cup water

4-5 Tbs tomato ketchup

2 tsp pounded brown salted soya beans (taucheo)

2 tsp cornflour

½ tsp dark soya sauce

1 ½ Tbs sugar or to taste

¼ to ½ tsp salt

1 tsp rice or malt vinegar


1. Wash the crabs, break off the claws by gently hitting them with a pestle. Break the shell of the claws by hitting with a pestle. Chop the bodies in half, then each half into two pieces. Wash and retain the shells - see How To Prepare Fresh Live Mud Crabs For Cooking.

2. Pound the peeled garlic coarsely. Pound the chillies coarsely, or grind separately in a food processor.

3. Wash the spring onions, discard the roots and cut into finger-lengths.

4. Mix all sauce ingredients. Taste and adjust to your own preference.

5. Heat the wok, add the oil and when hot, sprinkle the flour over the crabs and deep-fry them briefly in the hot oil till the shells turn light red. This will take about ½ minute and half-cooks the crabs. Drain and keep aside.

6. Remove all oil except for four tablespoons. Add the garlic; stir-fry for one minute, add the chillies, stir-fry for another three minutes till oil exudes and you feel like sneezing, then add the crabs.

7. Stir-fry over high heat for a few seconds. Stir the sauce, add to the crabs and stir well for two minutes. Cover with a lid and simmer over high heat for five to six minutes till the shells turn a bright red.

8. Remove the lid and break the eggs into the wok - stir to create silver and gold streaks. When the sauce is thick, switch off the heat, squeeze the juice of the halved limes over the wok - stir well. Add the spring onions and give the chilli crabs one last stir. Garnish with coriander leaves.

Serve with chunks of white bread, slices of baguette or deep-fried or steamed mantou.

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Chilli Fisherman's Wharf


500g mud crab, cleaned and

chopped up

200g frozen scallops

400g ready cleaned squid, cut into rings

300g whole large prawns

500g fresh live clams

2-4 eggs

2 whole spring onion plants

3-4 limau kesturi limes

3 cups vegetable oil

For sauce

Use double the recipe of the Chilli Crab recipe


Follow the method for Chilli Crab to cook Chilli Fisherman's Wharf

How to prepare fresh live mud crabs for cooking

Mud crabs should be alive when you buy them. The best way to kill and prepare them is to put the live crabs in the freezer for 1 ½ hours. This relaxes the crabs and they go to sleep.

1. Remove from the freezer, pull open the abdominal flap of the crab and pierce the centre of the crab's underside with a sharp knife. Keep the crab in the basin or sink for about 15 to 20 minutes till there is no sign of it moving. Cut the string holding the crab claws in place and scrub the shell well.

2. Pull off the claws, chop each claw into two and crack open the shells with the blunt end of a chopper or pestle.

3. Pull off the shell, cut away the spongy gills and brush the whole crab well under running water. The crab is ready to be chopped up into smaller pieces for cooking.

Crabs can be frozen after they are fully cleaned and this keeps the flesh firm.

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