Meet the person who created the Singapore chilli crab

Cher Yam Tian is said to have created the first incarnation of the chilli crab back in 1956. Her son Roland Lim reveals more about the origins of Singapore's national dish.

Chilli crab is one of Singapore's favourite dishes
  • Rachel Gray
  • February 2019

Singapore opens in new window restaurateur, Roland Lim, watched his mother cook chilli crab for the first time when he was just a child and today in his Roland Restaurant opens in new window he continues to serve it just like his mother Cher Yam Tian used to – although he has the advantage of a modern kitchen with all the bells and whistles. To this day, the sprightly 85-year-old still visits her son’s restaurant to make sure the chilli crab tastes exactly how she made it more than 60 years ago. Here, Roland reveals how the dish developed from humble beginnings…

How was the Singapore chilli crab born?

> During the old days in the 1950s, we were living in a kampong, which is similar to a village, on a hill in Singapore. My mother loved to cook and my father loved to eat. We lived near the water and my father would catch crabs and bring them home and give them to my mother to cook. One day, my father asked her, “Why do you only steam cook the crabs? Can you do something different with them?” So my mother emerged from the kitchen with the chilli crab and started cooking it more often.

Roland is proud to carry on his mother's legacy
Roland is proud to carry on his mother's legacy

Where was the chilli crab first sold?

> In front of the place where we lived near the river, there was a tree – my mother cooked the chilli crab under that tree over a charcoal fire with only two tables, a wooden stool and a kerosene lamp. Customers soon started recognising the place where she sold chilli crabs because of the kerosene lamp hanging from the tree.

What were the difficulties with setting up a restaurant back then?

> During those days in Singapore, it was very difficult doing business because not many people could get a license to cook and sell, so my mum and dad had to move between places and hide themselves so the government would not catch them. I remember, once, the government took the whole stall away because we didn’t have the license to cook at that time. They had a truck and lifted up the whole stall and put it on the truck and drove away.

When were you legally allowed to sell the chilli crab?

> We finally found a place that we could rent and we got a temporary [health and environment] license for store holders and then a formal license. But our customers still only knew we were selling the chilli crab because of the kerosene lamp hanging from that tree nearby. If the lamp was on, then it meant we were selling tonight. If the lamp was off, then it meant we were closed for the day.

What does the chilli crab taste like?

> It’s not spicy, as everyone thinks. It is difficult to describe the taste, so you have to come and try my mother’s chilli crab here. It is very unique. I don’t know how she came up with it. She is amazing!

Eating chilli crab can get messy
Eating chilli crab can get messy.

How old were you when you first tasted the dish?

> Maybe about six or seven years old. I was at home, sitting with my father, mother, brother and sisters.

Tell us about how you started Roland Restaurant.

> I dropped out of school when I was about 12 to help my father full-time in his restaurant – but it was my mother who taught me how to cook the chilli crab. The business was doing very well and my father decided to sell the name in 1985 and migrate to New Zealand where some of his relatives lived. We kept the recipe – we only sold the name. But I thought it was a waste because my mother had built up this chilli crab legacy and made it famous in Singapore. After I got married, my wife and I decided to move back to Singapore and opened Roland Restaurant in 2000, where we now serve chilli crab using the original recipe.

Do you eat chilli crab with a knife and fork or chopsticks?

> Oh, no, no, no… We use our hands!

Can you tell us the recipe?

> The recipe? I cannot tell you. It is a family secret kept even today.