Singapore might just be an island but there’s no disputing the global culinary acclaim of its street food and hawker culture. Some of the city state’s most loved national dishes are Hainanese chicken rice and chilli crab, which have found fans around the world. For instance, chilli crab was listed as one of the World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods compiled by CNN Go in 2011. While these locally ubiquitous dishes are a testament to the diversity and depth of the Singapore culinary culture, just how uniquely Singaporean are they?
This is one of Singapore’s top culinary treasures: steaming mud crabs slathered in sweet, savoury and spicy sauce, and served with deep-fried mantou. It’s not just about the taste but how you eat it – dipping the marshmallow-soft mantou into the lip-smacking good sauce. Local lore has it that the first chilli crab was served up in a pushcart by Cher Yam Tian and her husband in Singapore in the 1950s. Over the years, other local chefs, including Hooi Kok Wah of the famed “Four Heavenly Kings” of Singapore, also tinkered with the dish to arrive at today’s chilli crab dish.
While seafood dishes with crabs can also be found in neighbouring countries, Singapore’s chilli crab is unique, explains Roy Chua, chef de cuisine at Sessions restaurant, Hard Rock Hotel Singapore. “Macau is famous for its curry crabs and Thailand is famous for its crab vermicelli, which uses fish sauce. But the ingredients used are different from our Singapore chilli crab, which emphasises a balance of sweet and spicy,” he says.
Hainanese Chicken Rice
This is another dish synonymous with Singapore, though it’s somewhat of a misnomer. The dish, comprising an ensemble of poached chicken with gelatinous skin, rice and ginger-chilli sauce, is really a Singapore adaptation, as well as update, on an antiquated culinary dish from China. Shangri-La Hotel Singapore’s Executive Chef Franco Brodini explains how the Hainanese chicken rice, which is considered one of the national dishes of Singapore, got its moniker. “Hainanese chicken rice is a dish adapted from early Chinese immigrants to Singapore [during the mid-19th century] who were originally from Hainan province in southern China. It is based on a well-known Hainanese dish called wenchang chicken, which is one of four important Hainan dishes dating to the Qin Dynasty,” he says.