Chili Crabs Provide a Lively Intro to Singaporean Cuisine at Yummy Tummy
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The first dish I saw upon walking into Yummy Tummy, a new restaurant on Northern Boulevard, in Flushing, was the first dish I ordered. The choice couldn’t have been more obvious: there was one on almost every table, a big, round platter of hacked-up blue crabs coated in a thick, pink, chili-flecked sauce and surrounded by a ring of glistening fried buns. I’d never seen it before in New York—except on a movie screen, during a showing of “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which the American protagonist is introduced to Singapore with a feast from the food stalls at one of the city’s renowned “hawker centers.”
Singaporeans are famously food obsessed. They’re also incredibly diverse: the population of the island city-state numbered less than a thousand before it was colonized by the British, in 1819 (it gained independence in 1965), and became an international business hub. You might liken “Singaporean cuisine,” then, to “New York cuisine,” in that it reflects the city’s cultural makeup—it’s a mosaic of dishes from Malaysia, China, Indonesia, India, and parts of Europe. At Yummy Tummy, one of the few restaurants in New York that identifies as Singaporean, the chef and owner, Richard Chan, a travel agent turned restaurateur who moved to New York from Singapore thirty-five years ago, serves a selection of his favorites.
Certain dishes are considered particularly representative of the city, and these are what to seek out—and what servers tend to recommend—at Yummy Tummy. Chan’s chili crabs are as good as they look, the sauce briny and just a little spicy, the crab meat dark and concentrated in the body, succulent and sweet in the legs, the golden surface of the squishy buns cracking as you bite into them. (Alternatively, you can get the crabs over linguine, which is another way they’re served in Singapore. It’s also, Chan explained one night, a ploy to pull in local diners in what is a very Korean part of Flushing; “Koreans love noodles,” he said, regarding the section of the menu labelled “C’est la vie pasta.”)
The Hainanese chicken, which is considered a national dish of Singapore—though it’s also very popular in Thailand, where it’s known as khao man gai—is excellent, too. Poached, skin on, deboned, and sliced neatly, it’s served at room temperature on a bed of cucumber, accompanied by dipping sauces and a bowl of warm rice laced with chicken fat.
A crock of bak kut teh, which translates from the Hokkien to “meat-bone tea,” comprises a dark broth seasoned with Chinese herbs, tender slow-cooked pork ribs, juicy shiitake caps, and spongy cubes of fried tofu. It’s an antidote to winter—as is, of all things, the drinking water. On a chilly night, I was startled to realize, as I took a sip from my glass, that it was hot. The server who had just filled it looked startled, too. “Oh, sorry!” he said, and then shrugged. “Asians like it.” In summer, I’d opt for a beer stein of bright-pink bandung, evaporated milk mixed with a syrup that’s supposedly flavored with rose, but it tastes more like cotton candy on the rocks, speckled with cubes of jelly.
Some parts of the menu feel overextended, as true as they may be to Singapore. It seems like a waste to order something as universally available as salmon in white-wine-butter sauce here. And some of the more familiar Asian offerings, such as the house-fried noodles, described as a “version of the American lo mein Asian style,” are as generic as the wall hangings, which say things like “This is our happy place” and “Let’s get cozy.”
But I’d go back for the crabs alone, and to try Chan’s durian cheesecake, which was unfortunately unavailable on two recent visits. In Singapore, durian—a fruit native to Borneo and Sumatra, whose strong odor is extremely divisive—is so popular that it’s been banned on public transportation. A cup of Singapore-style hot tea, milky and sweet enough to take the enamel off your teeth, sufficed nicely. (Entrées $9-$30.)
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