Crab’s good, when you’re doing it together.
My aunt’s back from Shanghai once more, and once again, unintended. Previously, her daughter, my cousin Francesca was struck with some “spinal disease” and had to be flown to Singapore to be hospitalized (everything’s cheaper in China except when you’ve to be hospitalized, unless you’re a Chinese citizen). This time, the unscheduled visit comes courtesy of my aunt herself who has to return to Singapore for a minor operation (nothing mildly serious, I’m told). I suppose I’ve to take her and my mom’s word for it since my aunt has been quite literally, living life to the fullest – filling herself up with Singapore’s finest foods. I’m usually ignored for such events, but my mom and my aunt curiously decided to invite me to partake in one of these feasts, this time for crab.
I don’t get to eat as much crab as I’d like. Besides…I don’t know… Terrance, I don’t really have any other friend who enjoys crab. A great deal are allergic (for some reason), some are limited by religious restrictions and of course, surprisingly only a handful, don’t eat it because of the hassle to pry open the shell. In Southeast Asia, or at least, Singapore, dining on crab can get very messy. Unlike the States where all the dirty work is done by the restaurant and diners are served a very lovely “easy-to-eat” crab cake, crabs in Singapore are served in a very rustic style. Even for the most high-end of establishments (even on Singapore Airlines’ First Class/Suites), the crab is merely divided by body parts with the shells intact. It also doesn’t help that local crab dishes are often served in luscious thick gravies, the most famous being the chili crab and the pepper crab. The former served in a concoction of spicy tomato gravy, eggs and crab meat; the latter a rich black peppered sauce. It’s messy, and despite all the protection and prevention that restaurants offer diners – from plastic gloves to bibs – someone almost always gets sauce on their clothing. But therein lies a tradition that’s inherently Singaporean: it’s a communal activity, a dish that serves the sad and dishes out the laughs. I suppose it’s like the Western equivalent of a family baking together – everybody chips in, everybody gets dirty but it’s still, will, and always be, a moment to remember.
My aunt swears by Swatow in Toa Payoh for crab, so that’s where we went. “Swatow” is the Min transliteration of Shantou, a city in Southern China or more specifically, Guangdong. Shantou is an important cultural centre for the overseas Chinese Teochew population in Singapore and across the world, having been designated as one of the handful of Chinese ports opened up to Western trade and contact. As the city closest to Chaozhou (the Mandarin transliteration of the word, Teochew), Shantou became the last port of call for many Teochews who emigrated to nearly every part of Southeast Asia. Beijing recognized Shantou’s importance in facilitating trade, and designated the city a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). However, owing to its proximity to other major cities and SEZs like Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Xiamen, Shantou never blossomed into a financial powerhouse. Swatow Seafood Restaurant in Toa Payoh is an homage to Shantou, and its contributions to Teochew culture and cuisine. Needless to say, the restaurant specializes in Teochew cuisine, although it does cover other Singapore Chinese and Singapore specialty dishes.
With dinner service only beginning at 6pm, and us having arrived at 5pm, my aunt was adamant that we’d be seated despite the restaurant’s insistence that service would only begin at 6pm and we’d be spending time more wisely shopping instead of sitting a whole hour. My aunt’s persistence paid off, and we were seated as the restaurant wrapped up its high tea service.
After asking for permission, I took the opportunity to see if the kitchen could still serve custard bun, or liu sha bao (flowing sands bun). Perhaps I haven’t been attentive to this aspect of the dim sum scene, but there seems to be a sudden fervent demand for liu sha baos everywhere these days. I’ve taken to call it liu sha bao instead of the English equivalent of custard bun because “custard bun” isn’t even gastronomically close to what it really is. The “custard” is in fact, savory sweet salted egg yolk. It’s not something you’d find at the halal steamed bun sections in gas stations, and even if you do, it’s “just sweet”. A good liu sha bao needs to have the contrast of the savory and sweet, even though the bun is clearly supposed to be in the sweet territory with the custard flowing like liquid gold. Swatow’s liu sha bao has its bun flavored green from pandan, which gives it a very local, rustic vibe even before you reach the molten gold inside. Surprisingly, while the bun tastes overwhelmingly discreet with pandan, the pandan flavor bows out nearly completely in favor for the custard. The pandan instead, acts as a palette cleanser, and helps discern between the salted egg, the flavor of the eggs and the rich butter, and for the first few moments, it got in the way of the whole experience. I wanted it as a whole, but the pandan bun insisted on the customary introductions, but once you get over that, it’s smooth and just plain heavenly. My aunt didn’t seem to like it that much, suggesting that Imperial Treasure’s version was better but my mom thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted to order a second portion but by which then, it was too late as dinner service had begun.
My aunt started us off with a dish whose name I can only guess is “the ultimate mindfuck”. Technically, it’s finely sliced brinjal stir-fried with french beans, but our taste buds kept insisting that the brinjals were fried fish. It was certainly very subverting, but the appetizer simply did its job – it opened up our taste buds, tasted great and opened up conversations.
The second dish was a spin on the local favorite, prawn paste chicken. The chicken wings are de-boned, and in its place, stuffed with homemade fish paste and fried, without looking like they’ve been tampered with. I thought the har chiong gai’s prawn paste marinade was really seductive – it managed to balance the prawn paste and the chicken well, keeping it distinct and separate, but singularly united as one. However, I do wonder if the fish paste was a case of being just a little too creative. The fish paste did little to enhance and/or mask the flavors (I’m not sure what was the intention), but it definitely gave the chicken an undertone of seafood saline flavor which I was a little bothered by.
It’s ironic, but when it comes to dining at Chinese restaurants and you’ve got to sit through so many courses, I feel like I don’t need rice (even though it’s customary and tradition to have the food courses with rice). However, my aunt’s pretty traditional in this respect and rice to her, is very important in a Chinese restaurant, so we had the ubiquitous rice in the form of fried rice with crab meat. Frankly, this was pretty bland, but I didn’t mind it so much because on its own, it wouldn’t work, but as the prelude to the oncoming dishes, it was a warm, comforting calm before the storm…of crabs!
And I was nearly in heaven, with me and my auntie basically sharing two crab dishes among ourselves. My cousin was allergic to crabs so she sat out of this, and my mom really didn’t seem to like crab so she too, didn’t touch it other than the occasional, frequent spoons of the chili crab gravy. Swatow’s chili crab gravy was definitely a let down – it was a tad diluted, and not that I like my chili crab gravy thick, but I feel there’s a consistency that it should reach. Jumbo, Long Beach and Ban Leong’s attempts were definitely better. However, what was most impressing was how well cooked and how fresh these crabs were.
Overall, a very nice meal.