Citizens! Today is truly a special day here at the very epicenter of The Food Dictator’s hegemony, as I contemplate the nuances and characteristics of taste that elevate a humble dish from the ordinary to the sublime across a host of different world cuisines!
My mental meanderings have led the Regent of Richness, the Doge of Delights – YOUR TFD! – to come to one simple conclusion: adding butter or cream in a lavish fashion to ANY recipe whose main ingredient flavor profile is complemented by either of these ingredients really makes all the difference! Add in both butter AND cream (or a similar rich dairy product, as in this recipe)? Then you’ve truly obtained a transcendent match found alone within the gastronomic heavens – as such, behold Southeast Asian creamy butter crab in all of its glory for your palatal delight!
Now, the observant amongst TFD Nation have already noticed that I call this ‘Southeast Asian’ as opposed to naming a specific country. The reason is simple, the rationale however is complex due to culinary nationalism that TFD prefers to avoid at all costs! The Citizens of TFD Nation are united in our shared love of fine cuisine, true authenticity and true history – and two of those three criteria are – at best – murky when it comes to this recipe jointly claimed by both Singapore and Malaysia! As such, I shall not play nationalistic favorites, but I will share both sides of the argument so you can decide for yourself who can truly make the legitimate claim!
My dear friend Georges Salo lives in Singapore, and is my personal nominee for the title of ‘Most Interesting Man in the World’ – his breadth of knowledge appears limitless, his love of adventure is legendary, he has an unmatched gourmet palate and there isn’t a corner of the globe he has yet to visit (including Antarctica – several times!). So, he became my go-to pundit/expert to weigh in on this issue:
It’s contested on both sides like many dishes. This stems to the origin of the Peranakan, an ethnic group founded by Chinese traders who married Malay women. So they both interjected something into each other’s cuisine. Having said that, the fact that there is also a “Chinese creamy butter recipe” tells me that it’s probably more Chinese/Malaysian and as Singapore was part of Malaya at one time, it would be Chinese/Singaporean.
One needs to remember that Malaysia is not only comprised of Malays. So in this respect the dish truly crossed boundaries riding on the Chinese cuisine and each will embody or fine-tune it over the course of their lifetime with their own distinct additional flavours. So the Singapore version will tend to be sweeter, whereas the Malaysian version will be spicy, hotter and more savoury. I hope that answers it. As the question is complex in its simplicity.
Eloquent, erudite and exceptional in its clarity – as I would have expected from him. 🙂
Here is more detail, as noted in this edited excerpt from a story on asiaone.com:
In Singapore, Kelly Jie Seafood is something of an institution. The restaurant initially opened in 1998 under the name Mellben Seafood. As repute of its mouth-watering seafood began to spread, multiple outlets began to sprout, including the Mellben Toa Payah outlet which opened in 2006. Last year, the Toa Payah outlet was rebranded and named Kelly Jie Seafood, in honour of manager and owner Kelly Soon, who has for years, been affectionately dubbed “Kelly Jie” (older sister) by loyal customers.
This year, the chef behind the restaurant’s delicious offerings – Chef Chin Chi Vun, brought the restaurant even more fame as he recently led a four-man team from the Singapore Society of Chinese Cuisine Chefs to a second place win at the Lee Kum Kee Cup 2017 World Championship of Cookery. Soon says Chin practised extensively in the days leading up to the competition and could often be found in the restaurant long after regular working hours. “After work, he often stayed back to experiment and try out new dishes,” says Soon.
As a result, his dish of diced beef in satay-barbeque sauce nabbed him the runner-up title.
It is ironic that Chin’s win came about through a meat dish, especially as his many seafood offerings are renowned throughout Singapore. Some of the restaurant’s signature aquatic dishes include creamy butter crab, claypot crab beehoon soup, steamed prawns with black garlic and the popular poached crispy fried rice with seafood and bamboo clams in superior broth.
According to Soon, although the restaurant’s dishes have a rich depth and complexity of flavours, they are actually relatively simple for home cooks to recreate. There is the crowd-favourite creamy butter crab, which is the sort of dish that is great for families. “Creamy and rich, the sauce here complements the creamy texture of the crabs. It is a bit messy to eat, which makes it all the more fun for the whole family. As seen at the restaurant, our customers often slurp on the sauce and would be licking every drop from their fingers and shells,” says Soon.
Now – we have heard the Singaporean version of where this dish originated from – now let’s hear the Malaysian side of the story, as noted in this excerpt from the unmatched food blog Rasa Malaysia!
Everyone was asking for the secret recipe. Creamy butter crab is a fairly new Malaysian creation and has gotten popular these past few years. Made popular by King Crab restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, the basic ingredients consist of butter, evaporated milk, bird’s eye chilies, and curry leaves. The curry leaves lend a distinct and exotic flavor and complement the richness of butter and evaporated milk. The bird’s eye chilies add an extra kick to the dish.
I personally believe that my friend Georges nailed the origin – but again, since both sides claim to be the originators of the recipe, we will adroitly sidestep the issue and simply focus on the simple fact that this is one of the most delicious and rich seafood recipes you’ll ever enjoy! New England lobster with drawn butter is amazing, but if you prefer crab and some spice in your life – this recipe will light up your tastebuds in a most luxurious fashion indeed!
So – without further ado, let’s proceed with the recipe!
First off – you need (of course) a crab of noble local origins, unmatched freshness (read: it needs to be ALIVE when you buy it!) and truly in-season. Here in San Francisco, I would of course use the mighty Dungeness crab – east coasters would use blue crab, and Asians would use the original mud crab that is the highlight of both the Singaporean and Malaysian versions!
Cleaning crab USED to be a dirty and specialized business – if you’ve never done it before, go easy on yourself and have your fishmonger do the unpleasant work for you. If you are ready to graduate to a Masters-level kitchen adroitness, do it yourself – follow the video here! The use of an amazing new product from tealcrab.com makes this job quick, easy and with zero mess – yes, you are doing this to a live animal, so if you’re squeamish, just have the fishmonger do it instead! An Asian kitchen would use the body carapace in the final dish, but here in the West, that shell and its guts are normally discarded. Details in the video below:
You obviously also need two other critical ingredients to make creamy butter crab: best-quality butter and for this recipe – canned evaporated milk (I’m partial to the Carnation brand)! You’ll also need some fresh hot Thai chilies (the small ones with the deadly fiery heat) to help cut through the richness – I also like to add in some garlic and ginger for that same reason, but be advised they are NOT used in the original recipe.
I also add a tiny bit of top-quality fish sauce to add some umami to the final product – you shouldn’t taste the fish sauce, it just adds a meaty richness you can’t quite put your finger on. Again, this is not in the original recipe and should be omitted for the classic version – this is my preferred fish sauce brand. You definitely WILL also need some fresh curry leaves, as they are a primary flavor component of this dish. As noted on missouribotanicalgarden.org:
Murraya koenigii, called curry leaf, is a small, tropical to sub-tropical tree or shrub that typically grows to 6-15′ tall and is noted for its pungent, aromatic, curry leaves which are an important flavoring used in Indian/Asian cuisine. This tree is native to moist forests in India and Sri Lanka. Each odd-pinnate leaf typically has 11 to 21, thin, ovate, shiny, dark green leaflets (1-2″ long). Fragrant white flowers (each to 5/16″ across) in many flowered panicles (terminal cymes) bloom irregularly throughout the year.
Curry leaves are highly aromatic when rubbed or bruised. They are best used fresh in cooking (dried leaves may be used but have significantly diminished flavor). Aroma/flavor of the fresh leaves is enhanced when the leaves are fried in oil or butter. Curry leaves are often added to vegetable dishes. They add subtle flavors to many other dishes, including meat, seafood, chutneys, coconut sauces, relishes, marinades and omelets. Yellow curry powder (developed by the British during the time of their colonial rule in India) is a blend of many different Indian spices, one of which is sometimes (but not always) curry leaf.
You can easily order fresh curry leaves from my preferred supplier here – this ingredient is NOT optional for this recipe!
A secret weapon in the arsenal of most professional Chinese chefs in the region is chicken seasoning powder – a blend of chicken powder, spices and almost certainly a bit of MSG – it really adds to the succulence of this recipe, please don’t omit it! You can easily purchase a good brand here. To help thicken the sauce, I recommend potato starch (which I always prefer over cornstarch as it makes the sauce more silken and less ‘gloppy’) – you can easily purchase it on Amazon here.
My Citizens – this is truly a recipe that will light up your life and sate the craving for rich, buttery seafood in a brand new way for the Western palate! I hope you decide to try it at your earliest convenience, definitely with a side of rice or bread to sop up every last drop of the tasty sauce and perhaps alongside a complementary dish such as Malaysian tamarind pork or Singaporean black pepper crab if you want two very different taste sensations in the same meal that are both enhanced by crab!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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