Where: Red Hot Wok, 313 Toorak Road South Yarra
What: The best chilli crab in Melbourne
Who: Fine Dining Club – Beer Jenga Master and Gingko Leaf Girl
Bloat score: 4 – If I were lying prostrate on my tummy, it would have looked as though I was levitating
If I had to choose three cuisines to solely survive on for the rest of my life – I think about this important question a lot – Chinese Malaysian would be one of them, and so I was highly excited when Gingko Leaf Girl suggested we try Red Hot Wok, a Chinese Malaysian restaurant in South Yarra.
What differentiates Chinese Malaysian food from Chinese food? For one, there’s the inclusion of ingredients such as asam (tamarind) and sambal (dried shrimp chilli paste) and dishes particular to Malaysia, such as Ipoh hor fun (a flat rice noodle dish prepared with poached chicken originating from the north-western Malaysian city Ipoh), Nyonya fried vermicelli (a spicy, sour noodle dish prepared by Peranakan descendants) and Indian mee goreng (an Indian Muslim hawker-style egg noodle dish which is also prepared by Chinese Malaysians because we’re harmonious like that).
For once, I didn’t bother checking the menu beforehand because Gingko Leaf Girl had pre-ordered a crab so we could try Red Hot Wok’s famous Singapore chilli crab. Why a famous Singaporean dish in a Malaysian Chinese restaurant, you may ask? Because the food is pretty much interchangeable, although a former Malaysian tourism minister would beg to differ after causing a mini furore in 2009 for claiming Singapore’s chilli crab was in fact Malaysian.
Singapore chilli crab has a very particular preparation method – shell-on mud crabs are stir-fried in a viscous chilli and tomato-based sauce thickened with egg and corn flour. Mud crab is chosen for its sweet and abundant flesh. It’s very much a dish you need to use your hands for, hence why Red Hot Wok supplied us with wet towelettes to clean our hands and hot lemon water after for the very same reason. What makes Red Hot Wok’s version even better is the fact that the chilli crab is served atop a bed of stringy egg noodles; the noodles are submerged in the sauce the crab is cooked in.
It is commonplace for crab dishes in Malaysia and Singapore to be served with mantou, a Chinese steamed bun used to mop up the sauces the crab is cooked it, and so we ordered a plate of that alongside our chilli crab.
True to Gingko Leaf Girl’s words, Red Hot Wok’s chilli crab was pure perfection. The kitchen had done the hard work for us by slightly loosening the shells so we could pry them apart with our fingers, and the ensuing flesh was sweet and fragrant. The sauce was savoury and finger-licking good – I was literally licking it off my finger. If I were to have one quibble, it was that the sauce was more sweet than spicy, though the lack of fieriness is apparently a trademark of Singapore chilli crab. As a bonus, our mud crab turned out to be a female one (I felt evil typing this), which meant its shells contained eggs that were a creamy delight when stirred through the saucy noodles.
It was the first time in Beer Jenga Master’s life that she was eating crab, and the results did not disappoint. She did a good job de-shelling her crab and ended up wearing less of it than first-timers usually do.
We could have eaten just chilli crab with noodles, but decided to get some form of vegetation. The mustard greens with dried shrimp were cleansing, after the mouthfuls of rich crab noodles we’d had, with a pleasing burst of saltiness every time we bit into the shrimp.
The sizzling tofu was less successful however. While the egg tofu had a formidable outer layer that gave way to wobbly goodness – the texture was perfect – the accompanying minced pork hadn’t absorbed the flavours of the dish. I enjoyed it nonetheless due to the umami garlicky, corn flour-thickened sauce but it wasn’t to the standard of Red Hot Wok’s other dishes.
The sheer amount of tomato contained in the chilli crab sauce coupled with the wheat in the egg noodles and the garlic in the accompanying vegetables meant I was fated for a four-bloat finish, at the very least – I’m lucky it wasn’t more. I solemnly swear, as users of Harry Potter’s Marauders Map would, that it was worth it however.
Mud crabs are seasonal, so it’s advisable to call Red Hot Wok beforehand to find out if a) they’re in season and b) that there’ll be one reserved for you upon your visit because they are popular. Diners who hadn’t reserved a crab ahead of time lost out on the particular night that we visited. If that does happen, rest assured that Red Hot Wok has plenty of homestyle Chinese Malaysian dishes that will keep you sated – even if they don’t equate to the unique cultural experience that is eating Singapore chilli crab. At $86 a pop, our market price crab wasn’t as steep as we’d expected it to be, particularly when divided by three – making our visit to Red Hot Wok one of Fine Dining Club’s cheapest expeditions.
Red Hot Wok is open every day except Tuesday from 11am to 10pm.