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Chilli crab

You'll need

½ tsp cornflour 10 long red chillies, finely chopped 1 onion, finely chopped 80 ml (1/3 cup) vegetable oil 2 live mud crabs (about 1kg each), killed humanely, scrubbed and quartered 35 gm (7cm piece) ginger, finely chopped 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1 tbsp tomato paste 200 ml tomato purée 2 tbsp tomato sauce (ketchup) 1 egg, lightly beaten 2 tbsp light soy sauce, or to taste 1 tbsp sugar, or to taste To serve: coriander, thinly sliced spring onions, and crusty bread, steamed buns or steamed rice


  • 01
  • Whisk cornflour and 200ml water in a small bowl to combine and set aside.
  • 02
  • Process chilli and onion in a food processor until a paste forms and set aside.
  • 03
  • Heat oil in a large wok over medium heat. Add crab and stir-fry until starting to colour (3-4 minutes). Remove crab with a slotted spoon and set aside.
  • 04
  • Add chilli paste and stir until tender (7-10 minutes). Add ginger and garlic, stir until fragrant (2-3 minutes). Add tomato paste and stir until mixture darkens in colour (1-2 minutes). Add tomato purée and ketchup, bring to the simmer, add cornflour mixture, stir to combine, then add crab and cook, stirring occasionally, until orange and cooked through (10-12 minutes). Drizzle with egg, stir to coat, season to taste with soy sauce, sugar and salt and serve hot topped with coriander and spring onion, with bread or steamed rice.

One of the most satisfying - and surely the most famous - of all crab dishes, Singapore chilli crab has a relatively short history. The dish consists of crab in its shell, stir-fried and heavily coated in a rich, sweet red sauce made with bottled tomato sauce (ketchup), soy sauce and ginger, among other ingredients, thickened with egg and cornflour. Mud crab, with its generous amount of flaky sweet flesh, is traditionally the crustacean of choice for chilli crab.

Singaporean Cher Yam Tian created the original version of chilli crab for her husband in 1950, and began selling it shortly afterwards from a humble street cart. The acclaim her invention garnered was so great that in 1956 she and her husband opened a restaurant, Palm Beach Seafood, which is still cooking up this famous dish today.

Madame Cher's version was sweeter and less rich than the one that many of us are now familiar with. The later additions of egg and sambal have been attributed to chef Hooi Kok Wai of Singapore's Dragon Phoenix Restaurant, which also serves its version of the recipe to this day.

Singaporeans aren't the only people proud to call chilli crab their own, however. The Malaysian tourism minister caused a mini media storm back in 2009 when she suggested that Malaysia's chilli crab had been "hijacked" by other countries. Indeed, excellent variations of the dish can be found in many unassuming Malaysian restaurants in Australia.

Despite the name, there's not a lot of spicy heat in traditional chilli crab. In our recipe, the long chillies add only a subtle heat; feel free to add more chilli to taste. If you prefer less sweetness than is customary, fresh tomatoes would be a fine addition.

Eating chilli crab is a messy business and requires you to leave decorum at the door. Popular accompaniments include crusty bread and mantou, Chinese steamed buns, which are great for mopping up all the wonderful sauce. Of course steamed rice does the trick too. Arm yourself and your guests with the necessary tools - crab crackers, crab pick, finger bowl, bib and napkin - and dig in.

At A Glance

  • Serves 8 people
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At A Glance

  • Serves 8 people

Featured in

Nov 2012

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