Southeast Asian Cuisine: Singapore Chilli Crab

As the months away from Asia continue to mount, I am continually reminded more and more of dishes that I miss. This morning, a friend here in Belize posted a picture of a crab soup and it instantly made me think — Singapore Chilli Crab.

That gooey, sticky, sweet, and spicy sauce that coats the entire crab. Mmmm…

Singapore Chili Crab

Singapore Chilli Crab

Certainly not a first date food..heck, not even a three month relationship food in some instances, but still a must try if you are traveling in Singapore.

Singapore’s multi-cultural background has earned it the reputation of being one of the top food destinations in the world. The country has a range of culinary influences that include Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, and even the Middle East and some Western traditions. This translates into some substantial culinary offerings that are unrivaled in other parts of the world.

Singapore's famed Newton Hawker Food Center -- perfect spot to try chili crab!

Singapore’s famed Newton Hawker Food Center — perfect spot to try chilli crab!

Considered a signature dish of Singapore, you can find chilli crab at Hawker Centers, local restaurants, and anywhere that serves traditional cuisine.  Each spot will have a different take on the Singapore Chilli Crab, but essentially it’s a whole crab stir-fried with a fragrant sauce that resembles a tomato based gravy. It has garlic, chilli, ribbons of egg, and definitely packs a punch. You sop up the chilli goodness with fluffy white mantou (Chinese buns).

It is believed that the origin of chilli crab dates back to the 1950′s when Cher Yam Tian added bottled tomato and chilli sauces to the crab to spice up the regular dish. She eventually started selling it in a push cart, then moved to a food stall and 15 years later, opened Palm Beach Restaurant, which she sold in 1984. Some believe the more popular version of chilli crab seen today was created by Hooi Kok Wai of Dragon Phoenix restaurant — he modified Cher’s recipe to add eggs, vinegar, sambal, lemon juice, and tomato paste.

I’ve tried Singapore style chilli crab in several restaurants, in and out of Singapore, as well as the famed Newton Hawker Center. The best chilli crab easily was that from the hawker center — it was rich, tomatoey, slightly sweet with a manageable spice level.

Singapore Chili Crab from restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan

Singapore Chilli Crab from restaurant in Taipei, Taiwan

In case you aren’t swayed by our recommendation, CNNGo named Singapore Chilli Crab as one of the World’s Top 50 Foods and Newton Hawker Center even declares it’s one of top 10 foods to try!

Where is your favorite spot for Singapore chilli crab? 

 

                    

How Do Asian Hawker Centers and Night Markets Differ?

Taiwan is known for its signature Asian cuisine found at night markets whereas Singapore is known for its hawker centers — but how do they actually differ?

The frenzied night markets found in Taiwan are truly the epitome of Taiwanese culture. They are loud, busy, and filled with a seemingly endless array of delicious local foods. Hawker centers are essentially the same, but with a few key differences.

What are Hawker Centers?

Hawker center is the name given to the numerous informal open-air food stalls that are found in Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia. They sell inexpensive local foods and are often found near major transportation hubs, like bus stations or large train stations.

Singapore is probably the country most recognized and renowned for their hawker centers. Singapore has also helped improve the overall image of hawker centers as they were once known for unlicensed hawkers selling non-hygienic foods. In the past, many hawker centers were not properly managed and had problems with no running water or lack of appropriate cleaning facilities.

Newton Food Centre aka Newton Food Circus

Today, Singapore has turned some hawker centers into more of a food court atmosphere, moving them inside air-conditioned shopping malls, a smart move given the extremely hot and humid climate of Singapore.

Types of Food Served at Hawker Centers and Night Markets

The types of food sold at hawker centers versus night markets is one of the biggest differences between the two.

Hawker centers are more like fast food restaurants, serving whole meals and combination platters. In places like Singapore, many hawker centers even feature special Halal cuisine, meaning the food passes Islamic dietary laws. There are even signs reminding patrons not to mix the dishes from a Halal stall with those from a regular Chinese food stall.

Typical night markets, like those found in Taiwan, serve more snack type foods. Most booths or stalls feature one or two types of specialty items and patrons walk from booth to booth to sample many different foods. One food stall may carry only steamed dumplings while the next food cart features stinky tofu and oyster omelets, two of Taiwan’s signature snack foods.

Food on a stick is the heart of a Taiwanese Night Market

Popular food items at Singapore hawker centers include large seafood meals, from Singapore’s signature chili crab to more obscure items like barbecued stingray. Many dishes have noticeable Malay or Indonesian influences as well. Besides oyster omelets and stinky tofu, Taiwan night markets are known for a variety of delicious local foods like sausages, grilled squid, candied tomatoes on a stick, large fried chicken patties, and practically every chicken (or duck) organ imaginable. Signature Taiwanese drinks found all over night markets include pearl milk tea, aiyu jelly, and blended fresh fruit concoctions and smoothies.

Seating at Singapore Hawker Centers versus Taiwan Night Markets

Another major difference of hawker centers versus typical Asian night markets is the availability of seating. Hawker centers usually feature numbered tables where patrons can spread out and enjoy their meal. The typical process is to scope out a table, remember the number, and then go place an order. The person taking the order will ask for the table number and the food will then be delivered. This means a person could order food from different stalls and have everything delivered to their table.

Hawker Center food stalls

Night markets are traditionally standing room only, which is why snack foods are the featured fare. Vendors typically use mobile carts and many are not permanent storefronts or stalls like a hawker center. People may sit along a curb or some carts have a small table and several stools set up, provided there is room. Taiwan is known for serving many unexpected foods on a stick and it is the night market culture that has lead to these popular foods being served on a skewer.

Taipei's Shilin Night Market Food Bldg - designed for snacking with only a few stalls having 4-10 seats

Lines are often lengthy at night market food carts, especially those vendors who have developed a following over the years. It is not uncommon to see 50 people or more in line at some food stalls. Many tourists have learned to seek out the long lines to ensure they try the best local cuisine.

Some of the larger night markets, like the famous Shilin Market in Taipei, have a separate food building where very limited seating is available; however, it is not nearly as comfortable and spacious as a hawker center. The Jiantan food building at the Shilin Night Market is not for the faint of heart or those with claustrophobia. The aisles are extremely narrow and on weekends it is not uncommon to be packed in like sardines.

Location of Hawker Centers and Night Markets

Hawker centers are in a permanent central location with structural starting and ending points. They are typically adjacent to major transportation hubs and greatly resemble shopping mall food courts in the United States.

Newton Hawker Centre in Singapore

Night markets span entire blocks and feature a mix of food, shopping, and entertainment. They tend to be in many neighborhood districts, located close to transportation hubs, but especially near trendy shopping or university areas.

Typical Saturday Night on streets of Taipei's Shilin Night Market

Taiwan night markets also blend temporary, mobile elements with permanent storefronts and restaurants. During the day, a night market area may appear as a regular neighborhood with shops, restaurants, etc. Once late afternoon hits, vendors begin setting up for the rush of nighttime visitors. While there is still some risk of unlicensed vendors setting up, police typically patrol most night market areas to verify vendors are properly licensed.

Overall, the concept of hawker centers and night markets are fundamentally the same. They serve as central hubs where locals go to enjoy inexpensive local foods and provide an opportunity for tourists to experience some of the best cuisine the country is known for.

Grand Opening of Chef Justin Quek’s New Just In Bistro & Wine Bar in Taipei’s XinYi District

Seemingly sneaking in under the radar, noted Singaporean chef Justin Quek opened a new restaurant on Monday in Taipei’s high-end XinYi District.  The new Just In Bistro & Wine Bar fills a niche for those looking for a casual, yet quality dining experience at a reasonable price.

New Just In Bistro & Wine Bar in Taipei's XinYi District

Quek operates two other restaurants in Taipei — another Just In Bistro and Justin’s Signature.  The new Just In Bistro & Wine Bar will be one step up from the original one, but still not as formal as Justin’s Signature.  Quek describes his new venture as “Bistronomic” a combination of high-end gastronomic offerings, but at bistro prices in a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.  The cuisine is Franco-Asian, playing on his extensive experience with both French and Asian cuisine.

Justin In Bistro & Wine Bar

Congrats flowers filled the lobby and entrance

We stumbled upon the grand opening notice on Sunday and somehow managed to get seats for Monday night’s grand opening festivities.  Just In Bistro features bar seating at the front of the restaurant and a small dining room at the rear.  There is a private room that will be available for booking soon and even a show kitchen.  The dining room is small, with only 8 or so tables.

Show Kitchen

Excellent wine selection available at Just In Bistro & Wine Bar

Within minutes of being seated, Chef Justin Quek came over to talk to us.  He talked about his vision and about his food sources.  He is working with local farmers to provide the freshest of ingredients and all seafood is locally caught.  There is an entire oyster menu that includes delicate offerings imported from France.  One page of the menu includes some classic and signature Singaporean dishes.  In trying to keep a local tie in wherever possible, Quek also shared that the artwork on the various pages of the menu was designed by a local Taiwanese artist.

Menu featuring local Taiwanese artist drawings

After discussing the dishes for a few minutes with Chef Quek, he offered to put together a special menu and individual wine pairings for the evening.  This is always our preferred way to go rather than ordering straight off the menu as you get a real feel for the chef’s talents and specialties.

Baked “Le Creuset” Egg Cocotte, Fricassee of Mushrooms, Homemade Duck Foie Gras Torchon and Truffle Scented Mushroom Jus(NT $270)

Wine: Vueve Clicquot, Yellow Label, Brut Champagne

Infused with a wide variety of flavors, this definitely set the bar high.  The egg was cooked perfectly with a runny yolk — the perfect compliment with foie gras.  The foie gras is homemade and in this dish it is a torchon, which means it is wrapped in a towel (torchon) and poached.  Many of Chef Quek’s dishes have a strong French influence as he worked in France for a number of years.

Baked "Le Creuset" egg cocotte, fricassee of mushrooms, homemade duck foie gras torchon and truffle scented mushroom jus

Breaded “Wu Gu” Bamboo Shoot, Mayo & Truffle Salt(NT $280)

Wine: Vueve Clicuot, Yellow Label, Brut Champagne

Our next course was a special dish that won’t always be available on the menu — bamboo shoots.  Much like the European white asparagus season, Taiwan is known for its white bamboo shoots that are cooked in a variety of different ways.

The type of Taiwan bamboo is “Wu Gu”, regarded as the best available on the island and comes from the Wugu region near Taipei City.  The season just started this week and each day, harvested bamboo shoots are being auctioned off and sold on roadside stands.

If you have the opportunity to visit Just In Bistro soon, be sure to try this before it’s off the specials board and not available again.  The breading on the bamboo is so light and airy, and rather than overpowering the delicate sweetness of the bamboo shoot, it simply enhances it.  The light bit of truffle salt and the drizzle of mayo really elevate this traditional Taiwanese culinary staple.

Breaded Wugu bamboo shoots with mayo and truffle salt

Capellini with sauteed crabmeats “Marco Polo” (Starter NT $480 and Main $680)

Wine: Casa Lapostolle, Chardonnay

This was a dish that we probably would’ve never ordered on our own as we tend to skip over pastas, especially when they involve seafood.  After a few bad experiences in Taiwan, we’ve become quite skeptical ordering pasta out.

I’m thrilled we let Chef Justin surprise us as this was a phenomenal dish.  The capellini was so tender and light and he told us he used the aromatic oils from the crab shell.  Each bite was like a mouthful of succulent, sweet crab.  Justin discussed that the name for this dish comes from the explorer Marco Polo — there was a romantic theory that he brought noodles back from China and introduced them to Italy.  While that myth is considered debunked, there is definitely some truth that Marco Polo bridged a gap between Europeans and Asians.

Capellini with sauteed crabmeats "Marco Polo"

Another shot of the "Marco Polo" with bites of crabmeat

Wok Fried Whole Pepper Maine Lobster Served with Steamed Jasmine Rice (NT $1980)

Wine: Schloss Vollards, Riesling Kabinett

When the wine was poured for this course, we still had no idea what we were being served.  Since it was a Riesling, we certainly expected something on the spicy side and sine Chef Justin had talked about the pepper Main lobster, we were hoping.

Sure enough, we had a whole Maine lobster that was wok fried with a pepper sauce.  It was absolutely one of the best lobster dishes I’ve had.  The lobster was so tender, so sweet, and the pepper sauce was not nearly as spicy as I expected.  It was much lighter than what I’ve typically had with the Singaporean chili crab.

Wok fried black pepper whole lobster

Le Creuset Skillets Souffle (NT $480)

Grand Marnier Navan Vanilla Cognac

I am a souffle fanatic and this exceeded all my wildest souffle dreams.  Made in a skillet, it is a one-of-a-kind souffle that is big enough for 2 or 3 people to share.  The current seasonal offering is apricot with an apricot sauce on top.  The souffle literally melted in our mouths and it more resembled a toasted marshmallow than the egg consistency in many souffles.

Le Creuset skillets souffle

Chef Justin Quek pouring apricot sauce over souffle

If the souffle was not over-the-top by itself, it was paired with a very special liqueur — Navan Vanilla Cognac, which is made by Grand Marnier, and according to Chef Justin, he is the only person who has it right now in Taiwan.  It was served in a wine glass with two small ice cubes and it went down so smoothly — I am definitely going to be on the hunt for this on our next trip outside of Taiwan.

Navan Vanilla Cognac -- I must track this down!

At this point, we obviously assumed we were done but we turned around to find another dessert being brought over to us!

Old Fashioned Crepes Suzette with Vanilla Ice Cream (NT $460)

Another dish that Chef Justin is very proud of is his Old Fashioned Crepes Suzette with homemade vanilla ice cream.  Traditional Crepes Suzette feature a beurre Suzette, a sauce that is made from caramelized sugar and butter, has orange juice, zest, and an orange flavored liqueur, served flambe.  What a treat.

Old Fashioned Crepes Suzette with Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

Black Tea Chocolate Truffle Mint (NT $145)

It was time for coffee and tea and I was rather smitten with a few of the tea offerings — especially the chocolate truffle mint tea.  This is definitely a tea I wish was served by the pot, not by the cup!

Chocolate Truffle Mint Tea

Justin Quek’s Private Wine Selection

Something I did not mention yet is that Justin Quek has his own private label wine made by an Australian winemaker.  We were curious about it on the menu and he instantly offered to open a bottle and let us try some.  We were on the lobster course and he said it would pair well with it, which came as a bit of a surprise.  However, it did pair quite well and the peppery flavor of the lobster really enhanced the smoky notes in the wine.

JQ - Justin Quek's Private Label Pinot Noir

For those interested in the wine, it is called JQ and is made by Phillip Jones from Bass Phillip in South Gippsland, Australia.  It is a small production and retails at Just In Bistro & Wine Bar for $3,600 NT.  We took the opportunity to purchase a bottle and have him sign it.

There is a magnum private label Riesling for $4,600 NT, but sadly, it has not arrived yet — we were told it’s still on the boat in transport.

Reflections

Overall, we were rather impressed with the new Just In Bistro and couldn’t thank Chef Justin Quek for treating us to one of the most personalized and enjoyable dinners we’ve had.  He even took the time to print out our specialized menu with wine pairings that we could take home, which we had signed as well.  It is not often that a grand opening goes that smoothly and is devoid of major hiccups and issues — quite a testament to the quality staff he has in place.

Our signed wine bottle and menu

Since we had such an enjoyable dinner and Justin was leaving on the 22nd for a wine event in New Zealand, we decided to come back just a day later to try a few more specialty items and have the opportunity to enjoy Quek’s company.  Look for our return visit details in a subsequent post since we tried even more dishes the second time around.

Congrats to Justin Quek and his talented staff on a flawless grand opening and bringing another gem to Taipei’s burgeoning culinary scene.

Congrats on the Grand Opening!

Erin with Chef Justin Quek

Just In Bistro & Wine Bar (XinYi District)
No 30, Songshou Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City 110
Telephone: +886 2 8786 2000
Website: www.justinquek.com
Hours: 11am Bar (light meals) 12:00-14:00 lunch, 14:00-18:00 drinks, 18:00-22:00 dinner, 22:00-00:00 midnight snacks
Credit cards accepted

Located inside the NEO19 停車場 entertainment/dining complex
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Photo of the Week: Singapore Chili Crab

Singapore Chili Crab

A signature dish in Singapore, Chili Crab is fairly spicy, super messy, but certainly a worthwhile treat.  This photo is from Prima Taste, a Singaporean restaurant chain that now has a branch in Taipei, Taiwan.  When ordering Chili Crab, Prima Taste provides thick rolls to sop up all the sauce left on the plate so you get every last bit of that deliciousness!

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