Singaporean cuisine is truly like nothing else. Much like the US, the nation was built by immigrants with their own cultures and tastes. That mix leads to some of the best food one can find under one roof, with delicious Indian tandoori steps away from delicate and fluffy Chinese BBQ pork bao. At some point, someone had the terrific idea of combining those flavors to make uniquely Singaporean dishes that taste superb (sorry Philly Cheese Steak Gyros, you got nothin’ on Fish Head Curry…). Today, Liz continued her efforts to induct me into that culture with two hallmarks of Singaporean cuisine: Chili Crab and Katong Laksa.
The first, chili crab, is one of the most challenging meals I have eaten. To anyone who dares face it: wear red. Then they won’t see you bleed. The restaurant, Long Beach Seafood, is a Singaporean institution famous for its black pepper crab. The restaurant itself has a spectacular view of the ocean, lit up at night by the hundreds of cargo ships passing through Singapore’s ports. Inside, the soon-to-be-cooked seafood was in full view, proudly on display for patrons rather than shamefully hidden from view in a kitchen. Surprisingly, much was flown in from elsewhere: Canadian geoducks (?!?), Alaskan King crab, and Californian lobsters, to name but a few.
The food came out shortly thereafter. Fried squid, sambal kang kong, Penang-style clams, black pepper crab, Thai young coconut, and the pièce de résistance: chili crab! The burst of colors and inviting smells lured me in quickly. The sambal was delicious, fried squid a little crispy, and the clams tender and succulent. The coconut not only had superbly sweet juice, but tender creamy flesh. Then, out came a bowl of tea with lemon for cleaning one’s hands of sauce. “How quaint. Won’t be needing that!” I thought to myself. How wrong I was…
Now, I pride myself on my crustacean-busting abilities. As a kid, I once took on Red Lobster’s Bottomless Bucket of Crab challenge, crunching through no less than two whole buckets of crab, with room for dessert. The Sri Lankan mud crabs in the chili dish, however, were another beast with their ridiculously thick shells. All attempts on the crab ended with red sauce and expletives. On the first shot, I carefully placed a claw in the cracker. I clamped down, only to launch the claw halfway across the table. Expletive. Second attempt: nothing. The shell didn’t even dent, but at least I managed to hold onto it. Expletive. I then finally managed to crush the shell, only to have a lump of bright red sauce fly onto my (thankfully red!) shirt. Expletive, plus a dash to the bathroom to wash off. Fifteen minutes of angry shell cracking later, I’m covered in red sauce and proudly looking over my vanquished foe, reduced to shards of shattered shell. I looked up to see Liz and her family, expertly clean-handed and long since finished.
Next was laksa, one of the most unassuming dishes I’ve ever seen. It’s a beige soup and was unceremoniously presented in a plastic to-go container. Laksa is notoriously difficult to master. Gordon Ramsay, British chef/TV celebrity, famously came to Singapore and challenged three top chefs to their specialty food. He beat one chef but his laksa came up short, to the pride of Singaporeans everywhere.
Ours came from that winning chef’s stand so, needless to say, I was excited to taste it. At the first spoonful, the flavors really jump out. The soup – a very spicy and mildly sour coconut milk broth – hit hard, and took a moment to get over. The noodles did a good job of soaking up some of the flavor, and gave some good texture to the otherwise light creamy soup. We finished it off with some traditional Singaporean Nyonya desserts, my favorite of which was dried shrimp wrapped in sweet rice.
The next day, however, I caved. One can only take so much international food before seeking out some comfort food. So we went to get a good old-fashioned burger and fries, requested well-done (read: burnt to a crisp), just the way I like it.