Conquering the demon
Mud crab: When you can buy them fresh, nothing tastes as good. Photo: David Reist
Singapore has every kind of food you could want, but coffee isn't a strong point. The local brew resembles Turkish coffee and you'll need to be raised on it or be having the jitters.
It's not until we hook up with some expats that we learn of a place that makes our style of coffee well. Head to the Tiong Bahru area, not far from Chinatown, an area with beautiful art deco buildings, where you'll find 40 Hands. This will satisfy your caffeine craving, but it looks too familiar around here, as if the expats have created a universe modelled on home, so we have our beans and hightail it outa here.
Back in Chinatown, lunch is at Tian Tian Chicken Rice at the Maxwell Hawker Centre, where there's a queue but it moves fast. White poached chicken with a bowl of broth, rice, sides of ginger and chilli sauce, simple and cheap.
You know you've arrived in little India when life starts to look crazy, with none of the usual orderliness of Singapore: carpets a-plenty with everyone hanging out and trying to sell you stuff. This is where we have second lunch, at a vegetarian restaurant. We take a seat in a fairly crowded room, but once we ask for the dosai meal we're sent upstairs. At this point concern creeps in, are they going to sell me a rug? Strangely, it's exactly the same menu. The ordering is convoluted, involving every person up here, but the meal is so good. A huge, crisp pancake, 60 centimetres across, looks ridiculous, and with it are five sauces and three spice-laden vegetables. For less than $S6, that's Singapore money ($4.60), it's such good eating. Visit the Mustafa Centre for one of the world's craziest shopping experiences.
Back in a cab, we ask where the best laksa is. Katong is the answer, a Paranakan district out east. A long trip, but the train goes nearby, and eventually we find it, 328 Katong Laksa, another institution. It's busy when we get out. We're asked ''small, medium or large'', he tears off, and in an instant we have our laksa. This nyonya dish comes in many forms and the Katong version is very fragrant, with lots of shrimp paste. Thick ropey yellow and thin rice noodles fill the little bowl. Inside the gravy are delicate prawn pieces and clams. It's a long way to come, but seriously good, $S4.
From here we head further out to East Coast Park, which snakes along the coast, the water a beautiful clear, light green, which isn't what you expect with the thousands of ships and tankers lined up for the ports. There are seafood restaurants here, but the Hawker Centre is the place to go. It has dozens of stalls and we head for one in particular - Leng Heng BBQ Seafood and Claypot Deluxe. It has a lovely display of fish heads you can have in soup, but we're here for stingray sambal, a very rich, hot and spicy gravy over grilled stingray, and black-pepper crab.
I have a shellfish allergy, so I'm not planning to eat the crab, on account of not knowing how to get an ambulance. So I make myself happy with the delicious stingray, which is so textural. Then I weaken, the crab looks and smells so good. So I taste a bit. And you know what? No reaction, nothing, just glorious peppery mud crab. I have a little more. The same, no swelling, no rash, and then I'm into it, elbows out, and nothing tastes as good as this, my poisoned chalice for so long. Just so sweet and that peppery flavour really gets right through the meat, amazing.
Sitting there in the sub-tropical warmth, a light breeze keeping the humidity at bay, a couple of beers to wash it down, we are just so happy to find this.
There's still so much to talk about: Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck on Orchard Road; ramen at Hide Yamamoto's celebrity restaurant at Marina Sands; Lim Chee Guan's bak kwa, airdried, barbecued pork, which is one of the world's most amazing pork products; sitting on top of the Swissotel downing a bottle of delicious Meo-Camuzet Burgundy as the sun sets. And that's just one day.
Chili, white-pepper or black-pepper crab are all pretty easy to prepare, you need a live one, as the meat breaks down quickly.
At the Belconnen Markets, Sea Harvest seafoods had boxes of live Yamba mud crabs for the Chinese New Year but generally will have them during the harvest season.
Bryan Martin is a winemaker at Ravensworth and Clonakilla, bryanmartin.com.au.
2 heaped tbsp salted dried black beans (shrink-wrapped from Asian grocers), mashed
1 tbsp dark soy sauce
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
1 tbsp tomato sauce
2 medium mud crabs, about 1.2kg, female if possible and live if possible
2 tbsp peanut oil
3 red shallots (Asian eschalots, available at vegie markets), chopped
1 star anise, broken up
2 cloves garlic, very finely sliced
3 tbsp black peppercorns, crushed quite fine
3 tbsp Chinese cooking wine, Shaoxing
2 tbsp sugar
coriander, to garnish
spring onion, sliced, to garnish
Mash the black beans and mix with the soy sauces, tomato and oyster sauces.
Prepare the crab, by which I mean kill it, by freezing for two hours and piercing the nerve centres on the belly with a sharp knife. Remove the carapace and then the lung tissue on the sides. Rinse out a bit but not too much. That mustardy stuff inside is all flavour, you with me?
Cut the crabs in half lengthways, then cut across into quarters. Crack the shell on the claws and feet to allow entry for you and the sauce.
Heat a big wok until it is smoking, add a splash of oil and sear the crab, tossing vigorously, until it has changed colour and is part cooked, just a minute or two. Remove with any liquid, keep both.
Add some more oil, lower the heat and fry the eschalots with the star anise until soft. Add the garlic and pepper, cook briefly and deglaze with the wine.
Return the crab and the prepared beans and sauce mixture, along with sugar. Add a cup of water to give you a nice cooking puddle, mix and bring to the simmer, cover and cook for 15 minutes, returning to shake things up regularly.
Once done, remove crab to serving dish, bring sauce to a boil and reduce until you have a thick, rich-looking gravy, pour over crab, garnish with coriander and spring onions, grab some brewskies from the fridge, find a nice warm sun-soaked corner and hook in.