Every July and August, chefs and restaurateurs in Singapore rack their brains to come up with dishes to celebrate National Day on Aug 9.
Most ideas converge on local dishes and hawker fare. And chilli crab, which many Singaporeans consider the unofficial national dish, inevitably comes under the spotlight.
It will not be the usual rendition of the dish, of course, because that is available all year round and, therefore, too common.
It has to be served with a twist – packed in a bun or a dumpling, preferably without the shell for easy eating. So diners who avoid eating chilli crab because it takes too much effort or do not want to dirty their fingers no longer have those excuses.
There are also eateries that put their creations permanently on the menu.
Chilli crab pastas were all the rage a few years ago and while many cafes serving the dish have since closed, Halia at the Botanic Gardens continues to dish it out.
Of late, dim sum with chilli crab fillings have been making a reappearance. Jade Restaurant at The Fullerton Singapore was probably the first to think of stuffing chilli crab into deep-fried mantou back in 2013. Now, it offers a pan-fried chilli crab meat bun instead.
I am not crazy about traditional chilli crab because it is often too sweet and ketchupy. But when reworked into dim sum and other savoury dishes, the sugar level is often toned down and it gets more spicy and tangy, which I like.
Here is my list of favourite chilli crab dishes, done with a twist.
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1 DIN TAI FUNG
Steamed chilli crab & pork xiao long bao, $8 for four pieces
Where: All outlets including at B1-03 Paragon Shopping Centre, 290 Orchard Road When: Till Aug 31
These delectable dumplings have been making their appearance in the xiao long bao chain's outlets every July and August since 2007.
Each year, they give me reason to cheer not only because their arrival means National Day is near, but also because they taste really good.
Do not bother to dip them in black vinegar. Just enjoy them as they are.
What works is that while the presence of chilli cannot be missed, it is subtle enough not to mask the sweetness of the pork and crab.
Yet, it gives a little kick to the broth in the dumpling that is addictive.
By making them available for only two months a year, they become a treat that is eagerly awaited. Smart move.
2 JUMBO SEAFOOD
Baked Jumbo chilli crab puffs, $8.80 for three
Where: 04-09 Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Available: 11.30am to 3pm (weekdays), 11am to 5pm (weekends) Tel: 6737-3435
Jumbo Seafood is famous for its chilli crab, but I find its version a tad too sweet.
However, its baked chilli crab puff, available only at its Ion Orchard outlet, is a different story.
The chilli crab sauce in the pastry is more spicy than sweet and pairs well with the buttery, light and crisp pastry normally used for char siew soh.
A winner through and through.
3 JADE RESTAURANT
Pan-fried bun with chilli crab meat, $7.80 a piece
Where: The Fullerton Hotel Singapore, 1 Fullerton Square Open: 11.30am to 2.30pm daily Tel: 6877-8911
On weekends, it is also part of 15 items guests can choose from the weekend Yum Cha menu (priced at $48 a person, minimum of two to dine).
Based on the Shanghainese pan-fried bun or shengjian bao, the juicy pork filling is replaced with flakes of crab meat in chilli crab sauce.
The small bun is fluffy, but where it touches the hot pan, a thin crisp crust forms.
There is also enough filling for the chilli crab flavour to make a punch. There is nothing more disappointing than a bun with so little filling that you taste mostly dough with every bite.
4 BABA CHEWS
Chilli crab tagliatelle, $20
Where: 86 East Coast Road, Katong Square Open: 6.30am to 11pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 6.30am to midnight (Fridays and Saturdays) Tel: 6723-2025
This eatery, which serves an eclectic menu of Western deli classics and a mix of Asian dishes that include modern Peranakan, offers a chilli crab tagliatelle that puts emphasis on the chilli. The tangy and garlicky sauce is fiery, so ask for a less spicy version if you cannot take the heat.
I love it though, especially after I break up the onsen egg on top and mix it into the sauce and pasta. The thick strands of tagliatelle stand up to the spice better than, say, thinner pasta shapes such as spaghetti or cappellini.
A deep-fried soft-shell crab placed on top helps to sooth the fire. But the crab needs to be more crispy to make it a perfect dish. The one I tasted seemed to have left the deep-fryer too long ago.
The Ultimate Chilli Crab Ramen, $28
Where: Served at only two outlets: 04-02 Mandarin Gallery, 333A Orchard Road; B2-54 The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, 2 Bayfront Avenue When: Till Aug 12
Created in collaboration with No Signboard Seafood, this spicy ramen is a nod to Singapore's unofficial national dish rather than a faithful reproduction of its flavours. It does not have the ketchupy notes of the original dish, for which I am thankful.
Instead, the soup base is Ippudo's tonkotsu broth topped with a spoonful of chilli crab sauce from No Signboard. There is a shelled Canadian snow crab claw, as well as two deep-fried mantou, to soak up the soup. A drop of miso, some black fungus, spring onions and half a soft-yolk egg complete the dish, which uses slightly thicker noodles to go with the heavier-tasting broth.
The soup does not taste spicy at first, but a slow burn creeps up and catches you unawares.
Only 30 bowls are available at each outlet daily. You can reserve a bowl at Klook (https://bit.ly/2GjyDNo) if you are worried about them running out.