MAF ISO Chilli Crab

First of all, until a couple of years ago, I wasn't even a fan of chilli crab. I'd spent years happily sitting by at seafood dinners while my parents polished off serving after serving of steaming, succulent chilli crab, and not feeling in the least excluded, because at some point in my childhood, I'd decided that I didn't like crab and that was that. Even as, time after time, my dad sermonised on the art of cracking open crab shells purely by using one's fingers or teeth alone --- no fancy-schmancy tools, please --- and something tingled in me, as if he was passing down some essential element of my heritage, I still declined to partake of the crab, because, well, didn't we establish when I was a kid that I didn't like it?

I'm not sure when things changed. It could've had something to do with getting married, actually: the parentals-in-law would sometimes order chilli crab and, as the newly inducted daughter-in-law, the diplomatic thing for me to do was to try just a little claw or something, enough to keep me busy at the dinner table and diffuse any possibility that I was a difficult or finicky eater. With the eating of little bits of crab, came the grand revelation that the point of chilli crab, really, was not the crab itself but the sauce it was swathed in, best savoured when mopped up with man tou (buns, especially the evil deep-fried variety).

And now I'm hooked. I could sit and eat man tou in chilli crab sauce until my throat gives out.

We had chilli crab just a few weeks ago, at the always delightful Hua Yu Wee restaurant along Upper East Coast Road. The quality of food aside, which has never failed us, the other reason I like it so much is that the restaurant's housed in an original colonial-style bungalow, with a huge courtyard where you can sit and enjoy the quiet view of the lush green trees growing in their backyard, as it were. (It used to be that you could sit and enjoy a quiet view of the beach, but that was in pre-land reclamation days...)

A few nights ago, Ondine tempted us over for dinner by promising pork ribs in chilli crab sauce. Alas, we were let down by the fact that her neighbourhood grocery store had run out of the Prima Taste chilli crab sauce mix. All was not lost: the leftover from their previous sauce mix was very tasty, which merely whetted our appetite for more to come, and we got to meet Molly to boot.

Last night found us on the latest expedition for chilli crab, this time with EH, Casey and The Desert. We should've paid heed to the warning signs, though. We'd wanted to try the Palm Beach restaurant at One Fullerton, but it was fully booked so we ended up with a table at No Signboard restaurant at Esplanade. They'd told me over the phone that the indoor section was fully booked and they could only give us a table outside, but when we got there, they led us to a table inside, which I thought was a bonus --- until we stepped inside and were greeted by the classic Chinese restaurant cacophony: ambient noise loud enough that we had to lean forward and shout at each other (I kid you not) across the table, and every table compensating for the ambient noise they had created by speaking even more loudly.

It wasn't quite what we'd expected but we took it in our stride. Embrace the culture: messy chilli crab along with raucous restaurant environs. We ordered, we got acclimatised, and pretty soon we were feted by some really good food.

Except for the chilli crab.

Because, we suspect, the kitchen wasn't large enough to cater for all the tables that had been set out, food tended to be cooked in batches and served forthwith. So we got our bamboo clams at the same time as all the other tables around us; ditto the crayfish. And then we watched, and waited, as serving after serving of chilli crab went marching by, but none graced our empty little table.

We're pretty nice, non-confrontational folks, and the restaurant was obviously busy, so we waited --- an hour (from the time we'd been served all the other dishes). During that time, we asked three times about the missing crab, including the first request directed to the floor manager. Nada. Zippo. Zilch.

By the end of the hour, we asked them to cancel the order. Apparently, this is what you really need to get attention at No Signboard, because it immediately triggered fluttering attempts by waitresses to alert the manager, who then marched to the kitchen counter and gestured dramatically. I in turn waved my own hand in a sweeping half-circle motion until he got the picture that we didn't want the damn crabs, we just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Now if I were the manager, there would be an apology, followed by a serving of crab on the house, or if we insisted on not having the crab, then maybe a small discount to salve the experience. At the very least: an apology. Instead, he spent the rest of the time avoiding eye contact with our table. Meanwhile, it took another fifteen minutes or so to settle the bill, because they'd initially billed us for the man tou that would've gone with the crab that we didn't have.

At least it gave The Desert some fodder for her work, since one of the things she has to worry about is service standards in the service industry.

We'd intended to let Max Brenner be our refuge once we realised how loud No Signboard was, and its chocolatey salvation seemed all the more critical after the chilli crab debacle. But thanks to our patient waiting for the crab that never came, it was 10 pm when we got to Max Brenner, and since they would close at 10:30 pm, all they were serving were hot drinks. Strike one.

We hiked over to One Fullerton, where Palm Beach was still doing good business, and Casey kidded that we should have ourselves some chilli crab after all. But it was Bakerzin that we were trying --- and because they too were closing soon, they were only entertaining takeaway orders. Strike two.

By this point, clearly we needed something stronger than chilli crab and chocolate combined.

Terz jokingly suggested Onyx, to which I retorted, "Did you see the girls that were waiting in line?" We ended up at its chill-out space, Lash, in the premises of the former Embargo. No crab, no chocolate, but drinks and bar food to top off our disappointed stomachs. It's very odd to have the waitress present a bar food menu, but to apologetically explain that there's no drinks menu because they're new, but hey, "we have all the usual drinks."

Except Kahlua. So no mudslide for The Desert.

And Malibu rum. So no freakishly sweet rum-pineapple juice concoction for me.

Now I want chilli crab. Dammit.


At 6/17/2005 1:29 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're so polite. Me and my dad would have raised hell and demanded a 50% discount for as settlement for our wounded pride.

At 6/17/2005 4:47 am , Blogger Abigael said...

This crab thing ah ... don't understand.

My legacy happens to be different from yours ... my dad believes in how crabs should be appreciated fresh and steamed, unadorned by any sauce that will distract it from its natural sweetness. So I guess his daughter has grown up with the notion that crabs drenched in chili sauce are not fresh and hence need to be camouflaged.

Sigh ... look at how parents can influence our thoughts.

At 6/19/2005 12:20 am , Blogger Tym said...

Caleb --- The thought did cross my mind, but I chickened out. I'm not thick-skinned enough to pull that off.

Abi --- Ya! My dad has given me a legacy of not only loving chilli crab, but also tulang (very hard to find nowadays), fish head curry and Teochew-style steamed fish.

At 6/23/2005 2:19 pm , Blogger Olorin said...

Oh my word!! Pre-land reclamation days??!! I don't have memories of that stretch of the East Coast pre-land reclamation...

Maybe it's because I didn't live so far east then....


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