My husband used to insist on a birthday meal at Nando’s every year. But that was before I took him to Red House Seafood and he opened the Pandora’s box that is their crab dishes. He is no longer a cheap date.
We went to dine at their newest outlet, on the waterfront at Esplanade Mall, while they were having a promotion on their live Alaskan king crab. Not only was it cooked to perfection with startling finesse, the abundant flesh had the firm, sweet bounciness of unmistakeable freshness. Even if I had to subsist on rice with dark soy sauce for the rest of the week, it was absolutely worth it.
Why is live king crab so darned expensive? Well, those babies are big. As part of a meal with varied dishes, one leg per person is quite enough. They come from faraway, cold waters, and transporting them is a delicate process.
Also, I once climbed aboard some Alaskan king crab fishing boats in Seattle, and met with their captains, who were the subjects of the Discovery Channel reality series Deadliest Catch. When they set sail on the Bering Sea for months at a time, they undertake one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, contending with extreme weather conditions, high-stress situations and a nearly 100 per cent injury rate. And so, due to the economics of demand and supply, the compensation they receive for their catch is commensurate with the risk, and they work only three months a year.
The crabs I had didn’t come from Alaska per se, but they were wild-caught in chilly European and Korean waters, which, needless to say, don’t come cheap.
And there’s one thing that sets Red House Seafood apart from most other live seafood restaurants, and that’s the fact that they’ve specially designed an environment for their live crabs in which to not just survive until they’re served up on a plate, but really thrive.
Often, if crabs are kept in environments that stress them out – if the salinity or oxygen level of the water isn’t ideal, for example – they start to flag; their legs might fall off, and they don’t live as long.
Making sure they’re well farmed and cared for, say Red House’s director Chris Chang and executive chef Chen Khay Boon, ensures the diner gets the best crab experience possible – no hollow shells, mushy flesh or compromised sweetness.
Of course, this is ideal for everyone but the crabs inasmuch as they will eventually be eaten, but then again, they are also likely to be eaten in the wild by their natural predators such as larger fish, octopi, sea otters and even, apparently, each other.
Yes, crabs, like many other crustaceans, can exhibit cannibalistic behaviour. (Chang said, based on daily observation, that the Australian rock lobsters are the Hannibal Lectors of the seafood world; the Boston ones are fine, though.)
I was really curious about how all this crab farming takes place within a restaurant kitchen, so I popped down to Red House’s flagship restaurant at Grand Copthorne Waterfront to have a peek.
The giant climate-controlled tank is in a quiet corner at the back of the vast kitchen, to avoid the stress that tanks on display in the middle of the restaurant can cause the animals. Imagine trying to nap and having people tapping on your window all the time.
As a restaurant crab farmer, the most adrenaline-filled part of your schedule is receiving a fresh batch of crabs when they arrive, which happens about twice a month.
Once they clear customs, the crabs are rushed to the restaurant and taken out of their styrofoam boxes, in which they have been chilling with ice packs. Like champagne in business class, the ice makes them a little groggy and jet-lagged, so they offer little resistance. Of course, if they offer no resistance at all, it means they haven’t survived the journey. In this particular batch of about 80 crabs, four didn’t make it, and were taken off to be steamed immediately to use in dishes like prawn rolls.
The healthy crabs were weighed – most of them were a little more than 3kg, though there was a monster one that tipped the scales at 5kg – and tagged with colour-coded tags. They were also given a bath in a little basin of cold water, to wash off the little bit of sludgy waste generated during their journey, before going into the tank, which had been topped up with ice to help the crabs acclimatise. In about 10 minutes, they started to wake up and swim around.
It’s all hands on deck during this check-in process, but after that, it’s a matter of monitoring the temperature and salinity levels of the water, to ensure they’re well-adjusted. Twice a day, everything is checked and the crabs are examined for signs of bloating or overturning. They feed on micro-organisms in the water, which – fun fact – is the same water that has been used since the restaurant opened at this location in 2019.
That was also when Red House decided to start investing in the infrastructure and processes to “rear” their seafood well. Chef Chen, who has a long history of working in Chinese restaurants such as Ka-Soh, Black Society and Genting Palace in Malaysia, was passionate about finding ways to care for the animals better so they would have longer, healthier lifespans, and designed his own system through a fair amount of trialling and experimentation.
Chang, who is part of the third generation of his family to run the restaurant, said doing it this way is five to six times costlier, although it helps that some of the infrastructure is sponsored by suppliers.
Another thing I learned was that there’s a guy in the kitchen whose designation is “yu wang”, literally meaning the “fish king” in Chinese. He’s responsible for the daily upkeep and care of all the sea creatures in the kitchen, and the major requirement of his job is to not be squeamish.
Killing the crabs is a lightning-quick process – a deep cut to the heart for an immediate death – but a “fish princess”, for instance – and here, we are relying on unfeminist gender stereotypes – might not be a good fit for the role. Mud crabs, for instance, fight a lot and have to be isolated; they also need to be brushed once a day to keep them clean, as they don’t live in water.
Happily, we don’t have to be royals to enjoy the fruits of the fish king’s and chefs’ labour. Red House Seafood, with its 47-year history of serving up Singapore Nanyang-style cuisine, offers dishes like signature chilli crab, a version of this well-known dish that is more piquant than sweet; lobster in signature creamy custard Sauce; crab meat pao fan and braised fish meat noodles.
If you go for the Alaskan King Crab, I’d highly recommend the white pepper style: The crab is gently steamed, then stewed in white pepper-infused stock, and finally tossed in unsalted butter, huadiao wine and fish sauce. You can also have the crab braised with bee hoon, or “Bi Feng Tang” style. Plus, the new Esplanade outlet has a range of exclusive barbecue dishes like a jumbo chicken satay and BBQ squid with jelly fish.
Importantly, the restaurant makes sure its seafood is fully traceable, importing directly from source and building relationships with vetted suppliers to make sure that ecologically damaging practices like overfishing are guarded against.
After all, if we’re going to eat that crab, it should be responsibly sourced, well cared for, swimmingly stress-free and tremendously delicious.