Where to Find Singapore’s Signature Dish, Chili Crab
It’s out of the way, but it’s so worth finding Singapore’s best version of this classic dish
No Signboard’s Chili Crab is arguably the best version of this Singapore Classic.
“It’s in the Red Light District”, the concierge at a 5 star Singapore hotel said. In other parts of the world, that might have sounded like an ominous warning. But in sanitized Singapore, it hardly had the same force. After all, this is the country where selling chewing gum can get you fined $100,000 or send you to prison for up to 2 years. So it was hard to imagine a quest for Singapore’s most famous and most original dish would be the least bit life-threatening. That is if you could get by the overwhelming stench of the Durian fruit being sold at the entrance to No Signboard Seafood at 414 Geylang Road Tel:+65 68423415.
In stunningly modern Singapore, Geylang is a far cry from the sparkling center of the city. It’s certainly not on any tourist maps. But a visit to the area shows you a side of the city far outside the hotel zone. Glimpsed from a cab, the area gives its visitors another side of Singapore. Its streets are packed with people enjoying the outdoor coffee shops and working people’s restaurants. Red lights were not to be seen.
No Signboard Seafood is a destination all on its own. As you may imagine, there’s a story behind the name. The Kim Family own No Signboard Seafood and it was their grandmother, reverently referred to as Madame Ong Kim Hoi, who started hawking seafood at Mattar Road Hawking Center in the 1970s. Hawking Centers are a Singapore institution invented to address the problem of unhygienic food being sold by street vendors. They fed less affluent citizens although they were often just a step above street food cart hygiene themselves. That didn’t stop two hawker center food stalls from being awarded a Michelin star a piece in 2016. Both Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle and Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle were given the honor. Hawking Centers are now being replaced by food courts which are completely indoors and air conditioned which, in tropical Singapore, is quite a draw. In fact, there’s even a branch of No Signboard Seafood at one of the largest of these in The Central @ Clark Quay.
Madame Ong Kim Hoi stood out at her hawking center. It was uncommon to sell fresh seafood and even more uncommon to sell crab. She didn’t invent Chili Crab. That honor goes to Cher Yam Tian, another push-cart operator. In 1956, she was the first to add a tangy chili sauce to her stir-fried crabs. Before her recipe, Singaporeans just boiled their crabs and ate them plain adding a mild and very sweet tomato sauce. Why did this dish come the signature food of Singapore? Mostly, because Singapore is surrounded by mangrove forests that line the waterside. In these swampy areas mud crabs thrive. Madame Ong Kim Hoi turned this brown crustacean into something Singaporeans crave. She deep-fried the crabs once to cook and then deep fried them again in her Chili-inflected sauce. As to the name, the family had no money for a Signboard. Their fame grew through word of mouth and customers identified their hawker stall by calling the place No Signboard Seafood. It wasn’t until 1990 when the family opened their first “No Signboard Seafood” stall at another hawking center at Farrer Park. From there, the business took off and is now one of the leading Seafood purveyors in all of Singapore. The family has expanded into beer with its acquisition of the Draft Denmark brand. And hold onto your forks! The family has developed a line of ‘ready meals’ which will put items like Chili Crab Spaghetti, bokkien mee and nasi briyani. These meals will be available from vending machines – 36 of them are planned for locations all over Singapore by the end of 2018.
For now, no vending machine can take the place of No Signboard at the Geylang location. Large families of Singaporeans gather at oilskin topped tables where massive platters of food are put in the middle for one and all to eat. The Chili Crab came swimming in a bowl full of a surprisingly mild chili flavor. To sop up the gravy goodness, a dinner roll called “Mantou” accompanies the Chili Crab. These are surprisingly sweet. Non Singaporeans should note the dish is traditionally eaten with bare hands so that not a bite of the juicy crab meat is lost in chili sauce. This is easily a 5 napkin dish. A stack of pre-moistened towelettes appear with your check and you’ll be glad they did.
No Signboard Seafood at 414 Geylang Road Tel:+65 68423415.