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[Eat it]: Singaporean Black Pepper Crab

Singapore seafood institution Jumbo has a branch in IAPM now. We came, we saw, we ate crabs. We liked it. Here's why.
2014-03-06 18:54:17
Eat It is a regular feature that cuts to the core of a given restaurant's menu, highlighting a specialty, favorite, or otherwise good thing to eat.

Jumbo has been a big name in Singapore since 1987. But late last year, it opened its first of presumably several Mainland branches to little or no fanfare in a quiet corner of IAPM. You'd understandably overlook it if you were scuttling by, weighed down by Gucci bags. It could be any restaurant in Shanghai. It's nondescript and vaguely gaudy in that uniquely Shanghai way. It certainly doesn't feel like the kind of place where you should be eating sloppy shellfish with your hands.

And yet there you have it:

This is black pepper crab, one of the two reasons to go to Jumbo. Most people will tell you to go to Jumbo for the other reason, the chili crab. It's certainly the more celebrated of the two dishes in Singapore. But I'm partial to this one. What can I say? I like to root for the underdog.

Recipes for black pepper crab will differ from kitchen to kitchen, but most share the same broad strokes. And it's shocking that that some so delicious can come from a recipe so simple. You start with a crab, preferably large and from the ocean. Jumbo likes to use mud crabs, and if you've ever seen one, you'll immediately understand why. It's the claws. They're awkward, unwieldy, but most importantly, yummy. Then, basically, all you do is clean it, quarter it, deep fry it and then finish it off in a mix of butter (everything is better with butter), oyster sauce, crushed black pepper, chopped chilies and assorted spices.

The end result is something beautifully complex. So many flavors and fragrances converge on the plate — the varying degrees of sweetness between the black pepper and the crab meat, the umami of the oyster sauce, the heat from the chilies.

It begs to be eaten with your hands. Jumbo knows this. That's why you get a plastic bib with your order. Your server will offer you plastic gloves, too. Don't bother with them. Eating shellfish should be a primal, tactile experience. It's meant to be messy.

One crab will feed two people if you supplement your meal with a few other dishes. You have to eat your veggies. So order some of this:

It's just a simple stir-fry of water spinach wilted down with some spicy, pungent sambal.

Maybe something from the bird group, too. This Teochew braised duck is a house specialty.

It's slowly simmered in soy sauce and an entire rack of herbs and spices, like lemongrass, galangal, anise, cloves and more. And get this: no bones; only breast meat. After grappling with all of that shell you deserve a break.

Hainan chicken is, of course, another litmus test of any Singaporean restaurant. Jumbo does a fine job.

You can it get with or without the chicken-infused rice. I struggle to understand why anyone would go for the "without" option.

As for the price, brace yourself; Jumbo isn't cheap. They bring these crabs in live. They're sold by weight and according a fluctuating market rate. Lunch for two of us came out to around 650rmb. The lion's share of that bill belonged to the crab. Everything else we ate was around 60–70rmb per portion.

For a listing of Jumbo click here.