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What Is Chilli Crab?

By C. Mitchell
Updated Feb 08, 2024
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Chilli crab, sometimes also written "chili crab," is a traditional Singaporean dish made with mud crabs boiled in a mildly spicy, mildly sweet sauce. Despite the "chilli" reference in its name, the dish is not usually particularly spicy. Large mild chilies, not their spicier smaller counterparts, are traditionally used and are often balanced with sweeter flavors like tomato and fermented black beans. The result is a savory crab preparation that has a pronounced zing, but not a lot of heat.

Different cooks have different ways of preparing chilli crab, but most iterations are variations of one standard recipe. This recipe is believed to have been pioneered in the early 1950s at a popular Singapore restaurant. It calls for whole mud crabs to be boiled in a thick tomato-chili sauce that is augmented with black beans, then seasoned with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Egg and cilantro are typically added for garnish.

Required chilli crab ingredients are generally flexible, especially where proportions are concerned. Cooks are usually free to create their own variations. Chilli crab is commonly served in restaurants, in homes, and in casual market food stalls in many of the big cities throughout Southeast Asia. While all versions are usually recognizable as chilli crab, differences in taste, texture, and overall quality are often noticeable.

In nearly all cases, the dish is served with whole crabs that diners must open themselves. The shells are often cracked during cooking to allow the flavors to penetrate, but they are otherwise untouched. Many cooks believe that this is the best way of preserving the crab meat’s moisture. It also makes preparation very easy: depending on the cook, the crabs can be added to the broth live, or else pre-boiled. The fresher the crabs, the more flavorful and authentic the result.

Mud crabs are typically small, green crabs native to the shallow waters off the coast of Singapore. These crustaceans are not always widely available outside of this region, however. Soft-shell crabs, rock crabs, and blue swimmer crabs are common substitutions.

Larger varieties like Dungeness crab can also be used, but are usually broken up before cooking. The idea in chilli crab is to provide diners with several crabs steamed together, each worth a few bites. Large crabs are often harder to crack, and almost always take significantly longer to cook whole, as well.

While the crabs certainly are the centerpiece of the dish no matter how it is prepared, the broth is also quite important. Most of the time, chilli crab is served with dense or crusty bread designed specifically to mop up excess juices. Toasted Chinese buns are traditional, but ordinary French bread often works just as well.

Singaporean cuisine features seafood prominently, and chilli crab is just one of many crab dishes popular in this part of the world. Many restaurateurs, home cooks, and visitors liken the dish to black pepper crab, a similar preparation of whole crabs that has a drier, more peppery consistency. Black pepper crabs are usually prepared in a much thinner broth, and are often served on a plate rather than in a bowl.

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