It’s midnight in Geylang, Singapore’s red light district, and a burst of hot, humid wind tosses around a few discarded food wrappers and odd pieces of tattered paper. Until this moment I hadn’t seen any trace of the refuse commonly found in the world’s major cities. Singapore’s spotless streets and sidewalks are a feat of social engineering, and the city shines brilliantly at night with its futuristic, illuminated skyline and posh nightclubs. But for me there is life to be found in dodgy alleys full of the bawdy sounds of disorderly drinking, diners sweating in the oppressive equatorial heat, and pimps treating sex workers to Tiger Beers and zi char fare from home-style Chinese food stalls.

Anyone who loves finding and exploring local eats will relish jumping from hawker center to hawker center to sample the best Singaporean dishes: Hainanese chicken rice, chili crab, bak kut teh (pork rib tea), laksa (spicy Peranakan noodle soup), fish head curry, Hokkien mee (prawn noodles in sauce), and so many more. The marriage of cuisines in Singapore is fascinating, but after a half dozen food courts you may long for an element of surprise off the beaten path.  

Geylang is world famous for great food, vice, and liquid amusement—so much so that when Singapore’s government passed the Liquor Control Act in 2015, it took specific aim at the notorious red light district. As the city-state attempts to pull Geylang into the more sanitized norms of the rest of Singapore’s neighborhoods, a simultaneous gentrification led by Chinese investors has begun to improve its dingy streets and alleys.

This is where I once had my finest taste of Singapore, the white pepper crab at J.B. Ah Meng, opened by Wang Feng in 2013.

J.B. Ah Meng’s original location was a temple of zi char food and ambiance, a place where customers perspired as much as the cooks clanging their woks. Finding san lou bee hoon, garlic-chili lala (clams), salted egg prawn balls, and white pepper crab on the streets of Geylang was the most comforting end to a day battling the scorching summer heat of Singapore.

Some people don’t understand the romance of dives or a singular dish or how the people-watching enhances the meal. But my happy place was watching Feng begin with live crabs,  steam them until just before they were done, then wok-fry them in a fragrant white pepper paste. Back then, sex workers, pimps, and gangsters mixed in with locals and visiting celebrity chefs. All suffered as equals in the sweltering heat and humidity.

But like Geylang, white pepper crab has elegance beneath its unpolished surface.

Chili crab is more popular than white in Singapore, with its pool of bright red chili sauce, chock-full of flecks of crabmeat, serving as a bed for a pair of glowing mud crabs. Like Singapore, the dish is beautiful, offering savory pleasures with a simple, sugarcoated allure that appeals to a wide range of palates.

But like Geylang, white pepper crab has elegance beneath its unpolished surface.

Feng uses the finest Sarawak white pepper, grown in Malaysia, for his white pepper paste and combines it with oyster sauce. The blend gives the white pepper crab a balanced yet graceful touch of umami one might not expect, given its grimy appearance. The taste is explosive, each bite a euphoric journey through time down a long-forgotten path of the Silk Road.

In November 2016, just five months after receiving a Bib Gourmand in Singapore’s first Michelin Guide, J.B. Ah Meng moved to Lor 30, a venue complete with new furnishings and a rare luxury for a traditional zi char: air conditioning. The restaurant maintains a Geylang address where some of the city’s best hawker centers are found, such as the Old Airport Road Food Centre, Haig Road Market, and the Geylang Serai Market, as well as the exceptional kopitiam on Lorong 29 (known for top satay and Hokkien mee stalls).

The tone has changed at the spotless setting of the new J.B. Ah Meng, patronized by a post–Bib Gourmand crowd. But Feng’s white pepper crab oozes the same epicurean pleasures it did in its Geylang home. The spice trade is one of the world’s oldest professions, after all.

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