Like many who enjoy ethnic or international food, I like to think the dishes I’m eating are authentic: “real” Indian, or Mexican or Italian etc. But while I question the bona fides of many cuisines, the issue seems especially knotty when it comes to my own ancestral ethnic food: Chinese. From its start during the Gold Rush years in California, after all, Chinese food in the US was popular with and produced for a largely non-Chinese clientele of hungry white prospectors and their hangers-on. What resulted was a Chinese cuisine adapted to western palates, and to some extent available western ingredients. Chop suey is widely believed to be one such Chin-se-American invention; fortune cookies another. You could argue, in fact, that Chinese American food predates Chinese Americans given that the earliest Chinese in America saw themselves more as sojourners rather than immigrants, and America, via various Exclusion Acts, sought for decades to ensure that Chinese didn’t settle in the country.
Now, I’m half-Chinese by blood, but, brought up in the west, I’m probably considerably less than half-Chinese culturally. Food has been a large part of my meager Chinese acculturation, but much of it – sweet and sour pork, special fried rice, egg rolls – has necessarily been western Chinese food. Delicious? Sure. Authentic? Not so much. My own uncertainty about how authentically Chinese I am, is thus reflected in the food that I love.
When I travelled to Malaysia, where my Chinese family hail from, as well as nearby Singapore, I found my relatives liked to put my Chineseness to the test – mostly in a good-natured way – by seeing if I could “take” the local food, everything from bird’s nest soup to thousand year old eggs to sea cucumber. Some I liked, some I hated and pretended to like, but one I loved was Singapore Chilli Crab. Hot, sweet and messy – some Singaporean’s crack the shells with their teeth at hawker markets – it’s not a common restaurant dish in the west, so I was excited to learn a surprisingly quick and simple recipe for it, and even more excited to learn that this quintessentially Asian dish utilizes a quintessentially western ingredient – tomato ketchup. (The word “ketchup” itself has a Chinese or possibly Malay root, and refers to a fish sauce, but the tomato variety seems deeply American). In Singapore restaurants, by the way, Chilli Crab is usually served with a side of soft white bread, another atypical ingredient in Chinese dishes, but just the thing to mop up the rich red sauce.
Authentic Singapore Chilli Crab
(serves two in about fifteen minutes)
2 crab clusters
(Dungeness for preference, though Snow or King crab is just fine)
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 inch grated ginger
2 tablespoon of oil
1/3 cup tomato ketchup
1/3 third cup sugar
1/3 third cup water
3-4 healthy squirts of Sriracha hot sauce
1 bunch chopped scallions
1 egg (beaten)
Soft white bread (cubed)
- Break the legs off the crab clusters, and snap at joints. Separate the ‘body’ into 2 or 3 chunks with a cleaver. Crab legs should also be pre-cracked with the edge of the cleaver (or cracker). Mix tomato ketchup, sugar and water.
- Fry the garlic and ginger in the oil in a large wok.
- Add the crab legs and body and stir fry for 3-5 minutes (or until crab eat turns white).
- Add Sriracha sauce (3-4 squirts, or more to taste), then add mixture of ketchup, sugar and water and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Mix in beaten egg to thicken.
- Serve garnished with chopped scallions, and bread for dipping in sauce.
- Eat with your hands, with someone you don’t mind getting messy with.