Without meaning to be sacrilegious, a near spiritual experience transpired this 2012 Black Saturday.
Thanks in no small part to Wee Nam Kee.
One of Singapore's most recognizable exports, Hainanese Chicken, in one of its purveyors' most recognizable brands, Wee Nam Kee crowed its arrival in Manila when it first opened in the Ayala Triangle Gardens in October 2010. I remember the lines it spawned that first week, I had my order to go as the crowds proved to be too much for my slightly agoraphobic self.
While the rest of Manila is wantonly celebrating "Holy" Week with incalculable excesses in beach escapes that would make Sin City blush, I thought it would be a perfect time to revisit two of Singapore's signature dishes.
You read that right, two.
Wee Nam Kee prides itself to be a worthy holder of the "best" Hainanese Chicken title and legacy, but little did I know that it also served Chili Crabs with Mantou Buns in its repertoire. I was only made aware of this fact when Deal Grocer offered these scrumptious crustaceans recently on their buying site, which I immediately snapped up. (I had Black Pepper Crab when I was last in the Lion City, and swore I would try the Chili version should an opportunity present itself.)
Expectedly, Wee Nam Kee on Black Saturday was, to use the vernacular, nilalangaw. (Literally meaning "Swarmed by flies", an expression meaning a place was practically deserted.) As I said, I'm almost certain more than half of Manila's population is now gathering cancerous UV rays in spots like Boracay at this time. Which worked to our advantage, as I hate jostling and shoving if it can be avoided.
Arthur and I got a Personal Set of the House Specialty, Chicken; he ordered it Steamed while I ordered the Roasted version. A Personal Set consists of soup, the fragrant broth-infused rice and the chicken of your choice, nestled in a crunchy cucumber bed. It came with three condiments to choose from, already at your table: soy sauce, a spicy paste, and a ginger garlic concoction (our favorite).
The Steamed version is as wonderfully potent as I remembered it to be - succulent, tender, feather-light fragrant without taking away any of its unmistakable flavors.
The Roasted version was as pleasant a surprise as one can get: the chicken skin crisp and flavorful (albeit a little salt-heavy), wonderfully burnt without any bitter aftertaste, with the juicy, savory meat adding more oomph to the initial crunch.
The main event - for me, anyway, since I already tried the fowl feature previously - was the arrival of the Chili Crabs. Arthur was worried that it would be too spicy to handle, and if you have an aversion to anything remotely in the chili family, you may wish to refrain from ordering this dish. It will make you sweat, but anyone who ingests chili should expect to do so. It is in parts spicy, sour and sweet, probably in a 2:1.5:1 ratio. It doesn't make its hit upon landing on your tongue, but has a feeling of "growing" on you; after a few scoops of the sauce, I can best describe its spiciness as a pleasantly blunt hit.
We ordered the Wee Nam Kee fried rice to go with the chicken, and the rice dish deserves to be THE recommended rice variation. It is the embodiment of what I envision Chinese fried rice to be, rich, flavorful and unapologetic about not being the healthiest dish. It is for this same reason that it is NOT a complement to the Chili Crab dish, which has a distinct, overpowering flavor to begin with.
The Mantou buns (which I had to remind our server to give us, just a minor quibble) provide the perfect blank canvas upon which to dazzle one's tastebuds with the iridiscent kaleidoscope of wonderful earthly flavors of the Chili Crab. The term they use in Singapore is to "sop it up" (the sauce) with the bread. The tender, fresh crab meat underneath the pungent hard covering imbibed the cooking technique and process used well.
I was definitely in Crustacean Heaven. (And I admit that in the Chinese lauriats of our extended family, my cousin and I are informally assigned to be the "crab finishers", seeing as we love digging our hands into them in any form.)
Word of advice: Partaking of any crab dish, and in particular, WNK's Chili Crab, is bound to be a messy, disorganized affair. Prepare for the ensuing carnage and crab bath to ensue. Wee Nam Kee provides lemon water to counteract the olfactory effects on your fingers, and they also have a wash area and a clean bathroom for patrons.
Wee Nam Kee should take pride not only in its signature Hainanese Chicken. It can now also lay claim to having authentic, wonderful Chili crabs, short of flying out to Singapore and eating it there yourself.
A definite testament to faith in good food: Have good crabs, will definitely follow.
Wee Nam Kee
Ayala Triangle Gardens
Ayala Avenue, Makati