“What you want,” the aunty lingers behind me with hawkish eyes and a tight grip around her folded up paper pad with splatters of oil across the surface.
“We need a little more time,” my Dad replies. The aunty taking our order huffs, shakes her head, and turns back to take another table’s order. With a repeated stern tone, she goes, “What you want.”
This is part of everyday interaction in Singapore. To the point, no dilly dallying, and, above all, no “How are you?”. But you don’t need that hospitality. The energy of the steamy yet open air restaurant with shouts of Hokkien thrown this way and that will surely make you look past it. There isn’t any time for fake niceties. There is a mission to complete.
Keng Ek Seafood is tucked into the corner of Alexandra Hawker Centre in Bukit Merah, Singapore. Off to the side of the check-in desk are rows of tanks full of an array of fish and, their speciality, crab. As a young girl I would tap the glass of the tanks, jolting the fish, some even splashing above the surface because there is quite literally no room to swim around. The crabs, however, were much calmer. Not even a pretend punch to the glass tank would elicit a single muscular movement from the crabs. Perhaps because they were bound up by zip ties.
The crabs awaiting their impending deaths were the most peaceful component of this buzzing establishment. There is not a moment of silence in the spurts of Mandarin, Hokkien, maybe some Cantonese, bouncing between the aunties, the cooks, the customers, the children, the old grandpa who sits alone planting his barefoot leg on the chair with crab shells littered across his table. There’s a careful system to this organized chaos. Aunties serve around five tables each, running around plopping greasy hor fun noodles onto large round tables covered in plastic wraps, then wrapping the plastic covers up when the meal is over, encasing all the juices of bones and spilled gravy, revealing yet another layer of plastic for the next group to dine on only a few minutes later.
It’s a wonder how we Singaporeans can eat piping hot food in an even piping hotter environment. But you simply can’t miss out on chili crab on this little urban island. Chili crab is a dish loved and cherished by everyone, a national treasure sitting beside the infamous Hainanese Chicken Rice. If anything, it’s a ritualistic practice. Keng Ek is a cult favorite in my family. We always order the classic chili crab and the salted egg crab.
Chili crab is an entire steamed mud crab doused in a chili and tomato-based gravy that seeps into every crevice of the shell. Eggs and a cornstarch mixture makes the gravy thick to a syrupy texture. The beauty of chili crab is that it’s served with the shell on. Most chili crab restaurants will hand you an apron and plastic gloves. But the bare handed labor of love that goes into eating chili crab could never be beaten. I remember my Mum picking every leg for tiny bits of crab meat with her fingers and placing them haphazardly onto my plate where I would douse them back into that gravy to soak up all that savory goodness. For a salted egg crab, my younger brother’s personal favorite as he would practically eat up almost the entire crab to himself, the decadent sauce comes from salted egg yolks, a golden sauce with a hint of curry leaf spice laced throughout.
The origins of chili crab is a well known tale. In the mid 1950s, Cher Yam Tan wanted to reinvent her stir fried crab recipe by replacing her usual tomato sauce with a bottle of chili sauce. Like most national food treasures in Singapore, Cher Yam Tan’s dish began as a humble street cart dish. She and her husband would sell chili crab in pushcarts along the East Coast, eventually opening a restaurant in 1962 called Palm Beach. The dish became wildly popular, trickling to other restaurant menus across the country. One of which was Hooi Kok Wah’s restaurant, Dragon Phoenix, opened in 1963. Hooi Kok Wah was considered one of the “four heavenly kings” of Chinese chefs in Singapore. He created a more sour version of Tan’s chili crab by adding vinegar, lemon juice, sambal, tomato paste, and egg white. His creation became the more common version of Singapore chili crab.
The popularity of chili crab should not be underestimated. It’s recommended to reserve a crab ahead of time at Keng Ek Seafood as they often run out daily for the walk-in crowd. Truly, Keng Ek has one of the best crabs in the country. The sauce itself won’t burn your mouth, it’s a manageable spice with a slight sweetness and freshness provided by the crab. There’s a hint of vinegar but not overbearing where the dish is more sour than it is savory and sweet. The crab is incredibly tender with no lingering fishiness embedded in the meat. My mum no longer picks my crab meat for me. I’ve created my own routine. You have to know which part of the legs and claws to crack, where the hidden meats could be, and how to scratch every shell hollow. Even if there’s a centimeter long crabmeat left hanging on a stray leg, you slurp it up anyway. As you eat in focused silence, sweat beads on your forehead and down your neck as the Singapore heat starts to creep up that not even the meager fan above can save you. The best part is dipping golden mantou buns, these pillowy bread buns that can be fried or steamed and soaks up all the juices of the gravy. There should be nothing left on the plate but shells.
Keng Ek Seafood will always hold a special place in my family’s hearts. Even during the pandemic, we remained loyal by ordering two whole crabs, picking it up at the hawker center, and driving back as fast as we could to retain the delicious warmth. Over the summer, my family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia for good. It was only fitting that our last local meal would be at Keng Ek after two years of closed in-person dining. As we strolled into Keng Ek, I recognized that stunning chaos, the smell of chili blazing my nose. The aunty in front of me snaps her fingers and says, “Have reservation or not?”
Cover Photo Courtesy of Recipes are Simple