Finding Singapore’s best chilli crab, and wine match, in a public housing estate
“Seriously, help me. I’ve got crab in my hair and I can’t focus my camera.”
- Kit, mofo photographer and a poor choice in dining partner.
Let me preface this by saying I am not from Singapore. I don’t pretend to speak for the likes of all those living in this gorgeous, stupidly humid, city of gardens. Nor did I grow up on lightly spiced, slightly sweet crustacean flesh, but by mofo, do I know my way around a pair of crab crackers. And so you better believe me when I say, I think I’ve found Singapore’s best chilli crab.
In Toa Payoh, a 60-year-old public housing estate, sits an unassuming seafood house. Once a notorious squatters district, Toa Payoh used to be called the “Chicago of the East” for its huge crime syndicates and gang activity.
Nowadays it’s a busy residential area that houses one of Singapore’s best kept crab secrets – Kelly Jie’s. Formerly known as Mellben Seafood, Kelly Jie’s is where every Singaporean of clear heart and sane palate goes to drown themselves in sticky, sweet, seafood sauce.
Unofficially considered the national dish, chilli crab is a delicious mess of tomato, sugar, spice and egg. For a city so fresh and so clean it makes Andre 3000 seem like a pile of dirty laundry, it’s good to know that Singapore can still roll up its sleeves and get elbow deep with the rest of us when crab is involved.
We arrived at Kelly Jie’s armed with one pre-chilled bottle of Alsatian gewürztraminer and ordered the house specials: chilli crab, claypot crab, thick bee hoon soup and garlic bamboo clams. We were ready, sort of.
At first, Kit and I were self-conscious. Like the new kids in school, we were the only tourists in a pumping restaurant of professional pincer poppers. I mean, the guy next to us was using chopsticks (chopsticks!) to pry tiny slivers of translucent crab meat from its shell. Meanwhile, I resembled a two-year-old child only recently entrusted with the responsibility of feeding itself. You know, the kind of kid who loves throwing spaghetti across a dining room.
“Seriously, happiness is playing with your food,” Kit said, turning to me with an unnervingly cannibalistic red sauce grin. She was also sucking on all ten of her fingers, which was unnerving on a whole different level, but I admired her dedication to the art of crab cracking and her apparent dismissal of all social etiquette.
Now, this wasn’t our first ride at the chilli crab rodeo. We’d already paired the dish with riesling, chardonnay and a very questionable sauvignon blanc in the week since we’d got to Singapore. Decent pairings, but not mindblowing. The gewürz, however, took out gold, silver and bronze at the crab olympics.
Why? Because of its aromatics. Gewürztraminer is famous for its lychee, pineapple and ginger hits on the nose. You think that’s a bouquet? This is a bouquet, it says, like the extroverted Crocodile Dundee of the wine world.
Not particularly high in acidity, gewürtz won’t cut through Asian food in the same way as a rizza, but the perfumes will play with, and heighten, the flavours. The creaminess of the wine brought out the creaminess in the chowder-like bee hoon broth; the ginger notes accentuated the actual ginger in the steamed clams; and the lychee notes perfectly complemented the sticky, sugary, sweet chilli sauce.
“Thank god for crab, and thank god for gewurz,” Kit said, before taking another gulp, the crab beneath her fingernails a tell-tale sign of a good dinner. We were sweaty, slightly drunk and riding a wine revelation high. Gewürztraminer and Singaporean chilli crab, who knew? Gewürztraminer and Singaporean chilli crab in a public housing estate? Incredible.
Kelly Jie’s is about 30 minutes out of downtown Singapore. Expect to mingle with locals at the nearby hawker centre. We took an Uber which was super easy and super cheap.
Kelly Jie Seafood (Formerly TPY Mellben), Block 211 Toa Payoh Lorong 8 #01-11/15, ., Singapore 310211, Singapore
We paired it with the Trimbach gewürztraminer, Alsace.