In the food court at Toa Payoh, one of Singapore's oldest public housing estates, is Mellben Seafood, the greatest of Singapore's chilli crab restaurants. Crowds will line up for hours to get the chance to drown themselves in semi-sweet, semi-hot, semi-thick chilli crab, only occasionally coming up for air, their faces and hands covered with red sauce.
Once the mud crab itself has been mutilated beyond recognition, it's time to take out the mantou, or steam buns, and sop up what remains of the gravy, maybe washing it down with a glass of lime juice, or a $9 Tiger beer if you're feeling extravagant.
For a country so prized for its cleanliness, Singapore chilli crab—the unofficial national dish—is the messiest food this side of the American sloppy joe.
Despite its name, the crab itself isn't terribly spicy. The gooey sauce is tomato-based, and includes garlic, chilli, sugar, egg, and other spices the owner of Mellben Seafood wouldn't reveal.
I've always felt crab itself to be a problematic food, what with all the snapping, cracking, and slurping—too much effort for too little reward. But the sauce here makes the dish, and since no one seems to give a shit how much of a disaster your dinner table or the front of your shirt becomes, it's worth it in this case.
By eating Singapore chilli crab, you are participating in a piece of Asian culinary history. According to local sources, chilli crab was invented in the 50s by housewife Cher Yam Tian, back when Singapore was the ass-end of the British empire in Asia, a dirt-poor port and fishing town seemingly centuries away from the ultra-modern metropolis it is now.
Apparently, Cher's cop husband Lim Choon Ngee was tired of eating the same steamed mud crabs night after night. So she messed it up with some tomato sauce and chilli, and after a few experiments, came up with the dish. They opened the Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant on Upper East Coast Road, and the rest is culinary history.
Terence Ong, manager of communications at the Singapore Tourism Board, believes Singapore chilli crab is, in fact, from Singapore. Neighboring Malaysia, however, seems to think the story is bullshit, and that Singapore chilli crab is actually Malaysian chilli crab.
In 2009, they caused an international incident when then-Malaysian tourism minister Ng Yen Yen insisted chilli crab was Malaysian, and would the Singaporeans please stop claiming it as their own. The battle continues today.
What's unique about Mellben Seafood Restaurant, and hundreds of restaurants like it in Singapore, is its location. Despite its fame, it's located in a public housing complex outside of the city center. It would be like one of New York City's top seafood restaurants running out of Section 8 housing in the Bronx.
Except that in Singapore, public housing is nicer than a lot of middle-class neighborhoods in America, and it houses almost everyone. According to the Singapore Housing and Development Board, more than 80 percent of Singaporean citizens live in public housing. Of those, about 90 percent own their apartments.
They're spotlessly clean, largely crime-free, and forcibly racially integrated—every complex must have a certain quota from each of Singapore's ethnicities: Chinese, Malay, and Indian.
This is all made possible by the Singaporean government's long reach. Singapore is the nanny state par excellence, a single-party state where chewing gum is banned, you need a permit to buy a car, and drug dealers are cheerfully hanged. Most Americans became aware of Singapore's harsh laws in 1994, when Michael Fay, an 18-year-old American student in Singapore, was sentenced to six strokes across the ass with a bamboo cane after he vandalized a series of cars and road signs. (After US government pleas for mercy, he got away with four strokes.)
Spoiled American brats aside, many Singaporeans attribute their police state as the reason you can stick a chilli crab restaurant in a housing project and still have flocks of people come visit it. Just keep your spray paint at home, and remember which country came up with the dish.