Johor Kaki Travels for Food

Tony Boey johorkaki@gmail 🇸🇬 Dairy of Singapore active senior. Best years of food, travel, lifestyle

History of Singapore Chili Crab from Pong Teng to Sua Ti to Palm Beach to Roland Restaurant

Ban Leong Wah Hoe Seafood
In Singapore, chili crab is almost synonymous with seafood. I mean, if you go to a seafood restaurant in Singapore today, you will be hard pressed to spot any table that doesn't have a big serving of that flaming red chili crab dish at the centre of the table.

It is all the more amazing when one realises that chili crab has a very humble beginning and was quite a recent invention in Singapore, in the 1950s.

Image credit: OurGrandfatherStory
The creation of Singapore chili crab is well documented thanks to its inventor Mdm Cher Yam Tian and son Roland Lim Kai Lu's detailed interviews in Teochew language (4 hours long) with the National Archives of Singapore in 2011.

Mdm Cher was born in 1933 in a seaside village at Upper East Coast Road Singapore. Her father was from Swatow, China while her mother was born in Singapore. They were farmers planting vegetables and raised some livestock like pigs and chicken in a Teochew village near a cemetery known as Pang Sua Kia (or Hwa San Ting).

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Pang Sua Kia was beside a larger Malay village (kampung) at Jalan Haji Salam. Most villagers were farmers and fishermen. (Today, this is near where Upper East Coast Road intersects Bedok Road where Bedok Food Centre is located.)

Upper East Coast Road in 1953. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore

Mdm Cher's family lived near where Sungai Bedok river flowed into the sea. Today, Sungai Bedok is a canal.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Mangrove crabs were plentiful where Sungai Bedok river flowed into the Singapore Straits.

This is not Mr Lim but how a policeman looked like in 1950s Singapore. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore 
Mdm Cher's husband Lim Choon Ngee was a farmer turned policeman. Those were 马达穿短裤 days "policeman wear shorts days" - the Singaporean way of saying "a long time ago".

Mr Lim often catch mud crabs at Sungai Bedok which Mdm Cher would either steam or stir fry with julienned ginger, the Teochew way for family meals. (Last time, policeman very free 😝 ) One day, Mdm Cher's husband suggested that she try a spicy version as he was very bored with her usual stir fried or steamed crabs. Mr. Lim is a picky eater (quoting Mdm Cher) 😄

Mdm Cher's first few attempts at spicy crab didn't turn out well - it was either too sweet or too sour. After several attempts, Mdm Cher hit the spot - I mean it earned the approval of picky Mr. Lim.

The Lim family shared their chili crabs with their neighbours who also enjoyed them very much. One of them suggested that Mdm Cher start a stall to sell her crabs.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
So, in 1956 at age 23, Mdm Cher left her children under the care of her mother in the evenings and set up stall at the beach near her house. The makeshift stall had just 2 tables under a bushy tree - one for Mdm Cher to cook, and another for customers to eat. There were neither electricity nor running water, so Mdm Cher used a charcoal stove and water from the village well. Add a few stools and a kerosene lamp hanging from a branch, and the first Singapore chili crab stall was in business 🦀 

The stall was a one woman show - Mdm Cher set up stall, took orders, prepared the crab, cooked, served, collected money, cleaned up and washed. But, her chili crabs were a hit right off the bat and soon, she employed a helper. As business grew quickly, she had to get more help. Mr Lim was not able to help as it was illegal for a civil servant to "moonlight".

Mdm Cher sold her chili crabs with French loaf instead of rice. It was Mr Lim's idea - he is a man of good business acumen besides picky taste buds. The freshly baked French loaves came from a Hainanese bakery nearby and were served to customers crispy and piping hot.

Mdm Cher sold over a dozen crabs a night at her 1-table stall. Many customers took home her chili crabs wrapped in opeh leaf (dried betel nut leaf midrib). She sold the crab at $3 per serving (which was a princely sum in the 1950s). An extra large serving of crab went for $5. Mdm Cher served only mud crabs from the start (never sold flower crabs).

In old Singapore, it was common to light up stalls with hurricane lamps as there was no electricity. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
The nameless stall was known to customers as the Pong Teng stall. Pong teng 泵灯 is the colloquial Teochew name for hurricane lamp (teng for lamp and pong being the pumping action to build up the pressure before lighting the wick inside). Customers would look out for the pong teng at the beach - if the hurricane lamp was on, then it was chili crab for dinner 😋

Despite being born and raised in 1960s Singapore, I needed some help on what is "pong teng". Facebook friends came to my rescue. Thanks!

Unlicensed hawkers would run helter-skelter when health inspectors come. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore 
Pong Teng chili crab was very popular but was regularly visited by public health inspectors known locally as toads 地牛. Mdm Cher was forced to move her unlicensed stall about to avoid the health inspectors, at one point as far away as the Kallang River. It was an exhausting cat and mouse game. Her loyal customers followed her everywhere but unfortunately, so did the toads. Once, the health inspectors even confiscated Mdm Cher's stall, taking it all away lock, stock and barrel in their lorry.

East Coast Road in the 1940s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
In 1963, they secured a properly licensed open air stall at 514, Upper East Coast Road (today, it is a row of terrace houses near Sea Pavilion Residences condominium). The stall was located right at the beach facing the sea, coconut palms and boats coming in with their catch of the day.

Bedok beach in the 1950s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Inspired by the idyllic surroundings, Mr. Lim simply called his stall, Palm Beach. But, even here, Mdm Cher's customers still called it Pong Teng chili crab. Even though there was electricity, Mdm Cher continued to light their hurricane lamps or pong teng which was their trademark. Later, customers gave the stall another nickname, Sua Ti (Sandy Place) 沙地 chili crab because all the tables and chairs were set on the sandy beach.

Now, with peace of mind without having to play hide and seek with toads health inspectors, Mdm Cher sold more crabs and expanded her menu. Besides crabs, she had prawns and cockles.

Mdm Cher is gifted with tastebuds for flavours. Customers love her chili sauce for crabs, dark soy sauce for stir fried prawns and spicy dipping sauce for blanched cockles.

Each night Mdm Cher served more than 100 French loaves (from there we can guess how many crabs at $3 per serving 😱 ). As business continued to boom, Mdm Cher expanded her menu to 5 items with deep fried crispy baby squid and stir fried mussel 大头. 
They also had fried kway teow and bee hoon. From a 1-table chili crab stall of sorts, Pong Teng is now a full fledged seafood restaurant.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Palm Beach or Pong Teng or Sua Ti (Sandy Place) was known for very fresh seafood which were delivered straight from the sea by boats that landed at the beach right in front of the stall. It was the proverbial seafood paradise.

By the 1970s, 3 or 4 competitors appeared at the same stretch of seaside road, including Long Beach, Kheng Luck etc.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
By 1985, Palm Beach's sea view and beach front were gone due to reclamation. The East Coast Reclamation Scheme launched by President Yusof Ishak in 1966 was completed in 1986.

The stall was still better known as Sua Ti (Sandy Place) chili crab to their fans even in 1985, as there were no paved surfaces except for the stove. That year, the government required Mdm Cher to move and offered her a place at the newly built East Coast Seafood Centre.

By the 1980s, Mr Lim who frequently visited relatives in New Zealand, had fallen madly in love with the beautiful scenery and idyllic lifestyle there. He persuaded the family to close the chili crab stall, sell the Palm Beach brand, and emigrated to New Zealand in 1986.

Image credit: Singapore Memory Project
The Palm Beach brand was sold for a small sum but the family kept the recipes to their dishes including the chili crab. Till today, the recipe for the chili sauce is still a closely guarded secret. Only Mdm Cher, Mr Lim, son Roland and younger brother Richard know the formula. There are literally thousands of chili crab stalls and restaurants around the world today, but no one has been able to replicate Mdm Cher's chili crab so far.

After enjoying New Zealand's pristine environment and laid back lifestyle for a few months, Roland and wife grew slightly bored and restless. Their business in New Zealand was also slow as the population in Christchurch was relatively small.

So, Roland and wife returned to Singapore and partnered with the new owners of Palm Beach. In 2000, Roland launched Roland Restaurant in Marine Parade. Mdm Cher and Mr. Lim returned to Singapore to support Roland.

Image credit: Wikipedia
The crab of choice today in Singapore are from Sri Lanka, prized for their sheer size and meatiness. Crabs weighing two kilos are common.

They look extremely impressive at centre stage during dinner, but I am not sure if I am the only one who prefers crabs of 1 kilo at most as bigger crabs tend to have thicker, harder shells and the meat not necessarily nicer to the bite nor sweeter. 

Tian Lai Seafood in Gelang Patah, Johor, Malaysia
Today, Singapore chili crab is an undisputed national food icon. Every seafood restaurant in Singapore and also Malaysia serve their version of chili crab. There are also many chili crab specialists but Mdm Cher's original 1956 no-egg recipe served at Roland Restaurant is still holding her own. (Roland also serves a contemporary version of with-egg chili crab to cater to a wider audience.)

I say Mdm Cher 🦀 is the Colonel Sanders 🐔 of Singapore chili crab.

The last time I tasted chili crabs at Roland Restaurant was in 2004. I haven't started blogging then, so did not take detailed notes nor photos but remembered that I liked it very much. Till today, Roland's chili crab is still at the top of my mind for Singapore's best chili crabs. (Note to self: Go taste Roland's original chili crab again as soon as *Circuit Breaker is lifted 😋 )

*Circuit Breaker is a set of social distancing measures implemented by the Singapore government since 7 Apr 2020 to stem the spread of COVID-19 infections. Today is Day 52 of Circuit Breaker.

Ban Leong Wah Hoe has one of my favourite chili crabs.

#Singaporefood Taking overseas guests to taste signature Singapore dishes. We chose Kok Sen at Keong Siak Road for chili crab. Truth be told, I feel pressure when taking visitors around for food. What if the stall or restaurant is off form? Which happens. Fortunately, Kok Sen served an excellent chili crab last night. Not too spicy (for visitors) with well balanced mild savoury, sweet, tangy flavours in the thick sauce smoothed with raw eggs. There was a nice underlying crustacean savouriness infused in the sauce which I love in good chili crab. I believe they stewed the crabs briefly in the sauce to extract its flavours. Needless to say, the live crab meat was sweet with a nice tender juiciness to the bite. Bill came to S$138 for 1 kilo of crabs plus a small serving of savoury spicy hor fan with prawns (which we didn't really like as the hor fun lacked wok hei). 🦀

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National Archives of Singapore interviews with Mdm Cher Yam Tian and son Roland Lim

Date: 28 May 2020

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