When we headed to Singapore for the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards, we asked everybody—locals, chefs and visitors alike—for their one favorite bite. It quickly turned into a showdown between two of the most beloved dishes: chili crab and chicken rice. Which will win?
Both dishes are multi-component adventures for the palate. Both are aromatic and addictive. But which you choose says a lot about your personality and, in fact, your identity. That’s what Singaporean culture is: Food as identity, a reason to gather and delicious motivation to get along.
The case for chicken rice
The Singaporeans have taken chicken rice, originally from Hainan, and adopted it as their own national obsession. You’ve got to start with the best quality chicken—as Asian mothers would say, you can't be cheap with the ingredients. The chicken comes out thinly sliced. The temperature is key—it’s not hot or even warm, often, to showcase the masterfully tender and gelatinous nature of chicken poached just right.
At first glance it’s deceptively subtle, dare I say bland, looking compared with the dramatic chili crab. (I hear you—I’m not the kind of person that orders chicken when dining out.) But upon first bite, it clicks. This is chicken so fragrant, juicy, clean and chicken-y in its texture, it inspires tears like a Korean soap opera.
The chicken is but one part of the array that is chicken rice. While the chicken must be cooked perfectly, don’t sleep on the fluffy jasmine rice that’s drenched in chicken essence. When chicken rice is proper, the rice is not an afterthought. When chicken rice is really proper, it will feel like the chicken was cooked in order to be there for the rice.
And then, for you fellow broth lovers, there's the third key component: a bowl of simple, perfect chicken broth more delicate than any chicken soup you’ve ever had. No matter where you’re from, it’ll bring you right back to childhood.
The likes of chefs Pim Techamuanvivit (Kin Khao in USA, Nahm in Thailand), Yoshihiro Narisawa (Narisawa in Japan), Ana Roš (Hiša Franko in Slovenia) and Paul Pairet (Ultraviolet in China), agree.
“Chicken rice is a favorite, and it’s because my children always ask me ‘Mom can I have a chicken rice?’” said Roš.
Pairet loves chicken rice so much, he narrated to us his own recipe he came up with for the silkiest chicken possible, paying homage to the first day he landed in Singapore in 90s and tasted this dish.
Indeed there are infinite takes on this accessible dish, and everyone’s got a vehement opinion about it.
Take Maxwell Hawker Centre for instance—at just this one stop, there are countless chicken rice options to choose from, and I mean stall after stall after stall all lined up. Everybody has their personal favorite. But the real competition comes down to two stalls that have a story to tell.
Tian Tian is the infamous Michelin-recognized stall with a queue snaking around the side of it at all hours. Oh yes, chicken rice is an anytime breakfast, lunch and dinner kind of beloved staple. Tian Tian has become so popular that they’ve been able to expand into a chain overseas.
But as some locals will reveal to you, you can skip Tian Tian, go two stalls down and sidle right up to Ah Tai, which serves chicken rice just as stunning—and some say better—that Tian Tian. Turns out Ah Tai, which aptly means "little brother," was started by the former head chef of Tian Tian, where it’s said he created the original chicken rice recipe that made Tian Tian a darling with locals, bloggers and the press. He worked there for two decades before he and the owner had a falling out, and he struck out on his own, resulting in a delicious sibling rivalry.
The hawker competition: chili crab
Next, we had to taste the competition—the much more flamboyant chili crab, a favorite of chefs José Andrés (minibar, USA), Zaiyu Hasegawa (Den, Japan), Daniella Soto-Innes (Cosme, USA), Virgilio Martinez (Central, Peru), Mitsuharu Tsumura (Maido, Peru) and Eric Ripert (Le Bernardin, USA).
“I love it because it's delicious, it's convivial, you put it to the center of the table, you put your finger in it, you lick your finger and everything, it's very sexual and it's delicious,” said Ripert.
“Chili crab was invented by a lady who sold seafood by the seashore in the 1950s. She just blanched crabs, cooked it in some ginger, Chinese-style,” said KF Seetoh, who was Anthony Bourdain’s fixer when he headed to Singapore.
But it didn’t stop there. Because she was in an area of Singapore that was flooded with Peranakans, Nyonyas—"people who loved their spices"—and Muslims, chili crab evolved into yet another multicultural love child of this country. As she (who's still alive) recounted to Seetoh, people started asking her why she didn't put sambal in there, or why she didn't add tomato sauce and blend it with the chili sambal. So she tried it, and the rest is history.
“And then there were chefs down the road later that made it even more complex. Sambal with vinegar, with stock, with starch, with eggs, with tomato, Coke, and blah blah blah,” said Seetoh, “The last thing you want to eat is the crab, you want to dunk your bread into that sauce and devour the crab along the way. The crab is the sideshow.”
Indeed, the sauce is wok-cooked with a super specific order of operations so that it comes out only slightly spicy—the term chili crab is somewhat misleading if you were expecting a burn-your-face-off hot sauce kind of chili but are instead greeted by a savory, tart, complex yet comforting goodness.
“Ketchup is the secret ingredient, a not so secret secret,” said local heritage food expert Ang Kat Lim. So there's ketchup, chilies, garlic, ginger, candlenut and some egg to thicken all of that up.”
Indeed, a proper sauce will cling to the crab shell like a down duvet so that it then coats your tongue and the crab meat as you navigate getting in there. Cracking the shells and digging out that meat is trouble that’s well worth it. Personally, I find it a meditation of sorts.
That’s not all. Chili crab is also a multi-part affair. The crab in the sauce you will not want to waste also comes with pillowy northern Chinese mantou buns, which can arrive steamed or, better yet, deep fried. You’ll want to sop up all that sauce with those buns. Convenient.
Every time we asked the question to chefs and visitors, locals and experts, it became a super serious intellectual, philosophical, nearly spiritual conversation about these dishes.
“I'm chili crab,” said Lara Gilmore of Osteria Francescana. “I mean chicken rice is almost too subtle for me, I get it, it's good, but chili crab, I mean seriously. Is there really a toss-up between the two? There's like two sides of the fence?”
Well, yes. A fierce two sides of a well-fed fence.
“If I lived here, I would probably at the end eat more chicken rice than chili crab, because chili crab is like, ‘whoa,’” she conceded. Right, you can't live on an ultra-rich crab dish.
But chili crab won out for her. ”Well at the end of the day, I'm coming from Italy. We don't get any chili crab so chicken rice is kind of something I can sort of pull off.” Another vote for Team Chili Crab.
And if you thought you were done with crab after tasting chili crab, you've actually just begun. Crab is a thing here. There’s not just chili crab but also black pepper crab, even white pepper crab and so on, not to mention a cold crab dish with the golden roe still intact, served with a bright tangerine sauce for dipping.
Lim is a purist when it comes to crab. Getting to eat the ideal crab takes time. “You’d have to go and choose the crab yourself. You have to pick it up, you have to weigh it, and you have to check whether it's really struggling,” he said. The feistier the crab, the more delicious it will taste. Even local Singaporeans on a day-to-day basis might settle for merely “edible” chili crab, because to do it right can turn into an all-day ritual.
Crab is not only a representation of culinary heritage, but also a tool with which to further social outcomes. “When entertaining your guests or prospective business partners, you want huge ones just to elaborate your confidence,” said Lim.
“Some future mother-in-laws, in order to test the person that's coming into their family, whether it's a groom or bride to be, purposely cook the chili crab and see how gracefully they will remove the shell, eat the crab, consume it and don't make a huge mess out of it,” explained Lim. The more graceful the person is, the more well-mannered the person is.
This is a dish that demands so much commitment that it’s nearly impossible to come out not a stained, soppy mess.
Some crab faux pas to avoid? “Don't suck on your fingers. It's a no-no-no." (The unladylike chef Ripert would fail here.) "And no double-dipping,” said Lim.
As crab can become spendy quickly, the protip is to "head to a top spot in an overlooked neighborhood where the locals hang,” said Lim. Along with fewer touristy crowds, you’ll find chili crab that’s skillful, delicious and a value, to boot.
This is a food-obsessed country. Jokes about strict chewing gum laws and stern paternalistic Chinese culture aside, the people get animated and even misty-eyed over food. So go on, ask your new friend in Singapore: Are you a chicken rice or chili crab kind of person?
As for me, I’m chicken rice. This dish makes Singapore feel like home.
Watch the video below for a peek at the the behind-the-scenes interviews as we discovered the best versions of each of these dishes as they’re made...and promptly eaten.