It’s Friday night and I’m staring death in the face. The face in question happens to belong to a red snapper, and it’s peeking out from the dark depths of powerful tamarind broth shimmering with crimson chili oil.
As it fixes me with its upturned eye and gaping maw, I feel a vague twinge of guilt at having been partly responsible for bringing it to this sorry state. I pick up my chopsticks, gingerly.
“The rich would always eat the finer cuts of the body: the loin and leg of pork, the fish fillet, and toss the head,” announces Patricia Chia, the Singaporean owner of Sin Tong Kee (03-3713-2255; 1-18-12 Ebisuminami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; www.sintongkee.jp). She has been watching me engage in a mental battle with this fish-head curry and is running a historical commentary while I gather my resolve. “Our cuisine was born as a competition between immigrant laborers to scavenge leftovers and make something edible out of them,” she adds. I would come to realize, after visiting two of Tokyo’s Singaporean eateries, that the visceral aspect of the cuisine isn’t simply definitive, but also a large part of its appeal.
Not wanting to disappoint Chia, I dig into the cheek and pull out a firm, tender sliver of white meat dripping with sweet and sour gravy. It is dense and intense — all earth and fire, and softness and comfort. Beneath the head are plump whole okra and slabs of aubergine, soaked in fish protein and heaving with flavor.
I ask about the dish’s origins, and Chia explains that it was the brainchild of one shrewd Indian restaurateur who adopted the fish head as a curry ingredient for the sake of Chinese customers. Yet despite its roots on the subcontinent and distinctly Keralan vibe, the dish is, she insists, a purely Singaporean creation that only chefs like those at her restaurant are able to make.
“Chefs think because they know Chinese or Indian food that they can cook Singaporean dishes. This is nonsense — there are Chinese, Malaysian, Indian influences, for sure, but there is always something essentially Singaporean about them,” she says.
As I suck on eye socket, cheek and jaw cleft, Chia stays at the table, rolling off a potted history for each dish as it arrives. First is the hokkien mee, a soupy seafood stir-fry with coils of slippery noodles — a dish that was originally cooked by immigrant Chinese laborers using chunks of pure lard. Nowadays, it’s a mainstay of the ubiquitous hawker fare served across the country, and while the lard has been dropped, customers insist on their dollop of thick sambal (a superior Malaysian condiment made from chilis, shrimp paste, garlic, sugar and lime) that is so good you could brush your teeth with it. Then there’s the bak kut the (pork rib tea), which was originally handed by bosses to workers — sans pork — and tweaked with extra Chinese medicine as a tonic for the strains and stresses of their hard graft.
Singaporean food is a celebration of mass immigration — the mixing of the multitudes from Malaysia, China, India and the Middle East and ensuing eclecticism of ingredients and cooking styles that at once defines a nation, confuses newcomers and rewards the adventurous.
But there’s also the taste of raw capitalism, poverty and, even, animal entrails (pigs fallopian tubes, anyone?), chewed on and gnawed at by waves of toiling immigrants struggling to make a life after modern Singapore was founded as a British East India Company trading post in 1819.
Chia brings a folded banana-leaf parcel called otah otah (brain) before wishing us well and vanishing back into the rush of the kitchen. Unwrapping the leaf reveals a tranche of fragrant ground fish that tastes of lemongrass, coconut milk, chili and spice. Having now over-eaten, I prize my hefty thighs out of the chair and move on.
The following night, I’m sitting in Singapore Seafood Republic (03-5449-8080; 1-13-3 Takanawa, Minato-ku, Tokyo; www.singaporeseafood.jp), a plush eatery in downtown Shinagawa clad in a colonial facade. Inside, there’s wood paneling, bold black-and-white stripes and a single bright pink wall. Across the table, is a Singaporean called Yandy, and before me, a 700-gram king crab slathered in sweet chili-tomato gravy, with 12 steamed and fried mantou buns. Over a plate of crispy, crunchy cuttlefish toast, I ask Yandy about the popularity of chili crab.
“Singaporeans are experimental with food — happy to absorb anything from anywhere. We’re very open-minded about flavor, and less bothered about presentation. Actually, we just like big flavors and lots of spice.”
A metallic pot arrives filled with hinged crab crackers, heavy-duty scissors and long picks. I lift back the crab’s crenellated lid and pull off the legs and claws with a twist, sucking the meat from the joints and fossicking through chambers with the pick. Multiple fried buns make their way from plate-to-sauce-to-mouth. There are spatterings of chili sauce — everything is doused in it— down my restaurant-issued apron and smeared from mouth to earlobe. This is neither dainty, nor polite.
There are other notable dishes at Singapore Seafood Republic — Malaysian cereal prawns, basted in butter with a dusting of ground oats and crispy curry leaf; the Indian-Muslim classic, mee goreng; a refreshing bowl of crunchy achar pickles with peanut and coriander. But you come for the crabs, which, thanks to a dedicated supply chain, are available year-round.
My brief fling with Singaporean food has been messy and profoundly satisfying. I’ve sucked on crab claws, gorged on chili sauce, and personally dismembered some of the ocean’s finest specimens. It’s been vulgar and obscene; the Megumi Igarashi of seafood cuisine.
On the way out, we pause at the fish tank full of mud crabs. Looking deep into the beady eyes of the crustacean at the front, that ill-defined guiltiness I felt at Sing Tong Kee returns.
“Don’t worry about it,” Yandy says, “We’ve saved them from prison.”