Chili crab (top) and crispy squid babies (above). Photos by Pauline D. Loh / China Daily
Sea breezes and shellfish are potent combinations on any occasion, especially when it is a happy homecoming. Pauline D. Loh relives the chili crab memories of her island home.
My son hates prawns, and would only eat crab if it comes without any shells - so you can imagine the great concession he made when I got back home this time. He took me to dinner at one of Singapore's most famous seafood restaurants.
We sat down and ordered sweet and sour pork, the one dish he will eat repeatedly without ever tiring. Once we got that out of the way, the rest of the party turned to the seafood menu and began drooling over the choices.
Jumbo Seafood Restaurant at the East Coast Parkway is strategically sited, and as we sit at one of the coveted tables outside, we gaze at enormous container ships crowding in the distance, testament to Singapore's reputation as one of the world's busiest ports.
My island home is also known for its diverse culinary influences, culled from a history of ethnic harmony and equality, and now lovingly preserved as part of its relatively short but colorful heritage.
So it is that when our dishes arrive on the table, they look as if they have taken a kaleidoscopic gallop through Malay, Chinese, Indian and even European kitchens.
First up is a platter of chicken satay, served with a little bowl of spicy peanut sauce redolent of coriander and fennel, cumin and turmeric. The grilled skewers are succulent and sweet, and come served with a salad of cucumbers and raw onions.
My goddaughter from Beijing was visiting Singapore for the first time, and was fascinated by the huge coconuts that arrived at the table, each with its top lopped off and a straw inserted.
As she sips at the icy cold coconut water in the fruit, her eyes widen. The coconut juice in cans we get back in China is actually diluted milk extracted from the flesh, I explain.
Baby squids hardly the size of a thumbnail are served next. They are fried to a crisp in a sweet black sauce tinged with tamarind and are a favorite with many of the families eating at tables next to us.
This is again a uniquely Singaporean dish - very addictive. Singapore's national dish, the chili crab is the centerpiece on our table.
Huge Sri Lankan crabs the size of dinner plates are cooked in a tomato-chili-egg sauce that is finger-licking good. In fact, it would be silly to eat the crabs with anything but your fingers.
The restaurant also serves little buns for you to mop up the juices on your plate, and a finger bowl of water with lime slices added is there for a preliminary clean-up before you head for the wash basins at the back of the shop.
My husband's favorite vegetable dish when we were in Singapore was morning glory rapidly stir-fried with chili and pounded dried prawns. This is sambal kangkong, as we call it. Morning glory, or water convolvulus, is a common vegetable found throughout Southeast Asia, and grows wild by the roadsides in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.
By this time, our table was groaning under the weight of a deep-fried tilapia smothered in a tamarind chili sauce, king prawns covered with a crispy cereal topping scented with curry leaves and steamed bamboo clams with the classic Chinese trio of garlic, spring onions and ginger.
Seafood in Singapore is all imported, as is almost everything else, but it is also this that makes it so amazingly fresh. You will see huge tanks of live fishes, prawns and crabs at all the seafood restaurants, and the chefs take pride in outshining each other in taste and innovation.
The best ambience to eat seafood is by the sea, of course, and any cab driver will happily drive you to the East Coast Parkway Seafood Center, where an eclectic crowd of eateries caters to both locals and visitors.
You do have to book a table in advance, or go very early. Singaporeans love to eat, and on weekends, whole extended families will be there feasting.
Our family has usually gone to Jumbo Seafood because it delivers consistently good food. While it does booming business at the East Coast Parkway, Jumbo also has branches in the city. It has two restaurants along the Singapore River, another at the culinary enclave at Dempsey Hill and yet one more at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Expect to pay about S$100 ($79) per person if you like crabs, prawns and a live fish, but with a party of four or more, economy of scale kicks in, and $400 will buy you a laden table and very happy tummies.