Roland Lim of Roland Restaurant comes from good stock: his mother invented Singapore’s national dish, Chilli Crab.
Contributed By Dawn Seow
Ah, Chilli Crab!
Two words guaranteed to cause Singaporeans to drool uncontrollably. A dish that drove celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to proclaim after he had tasted it, “Now I can die happy!”
What most people don’t know is that this irresistible dish was invented by a woman trying to please her husband at dinner time.
Cher Yam Tian and her husband Lim Choon Ngee lived in a kampong near the shores of East Coast in the 1950s. In those days, when the tide was low, they could pick prawns and crabs right out of the sea. Lim loved seafood and Cher loved to cook for her husband. When they brought back their finds, she would often steam them for dinner.
Eating the same food every day soon grew boring. Lim asked his wife if she could find new ways to cook the crabs. Cher tried all kinds of methods, but it was when she experimented with tomato sauce and chilli that she hit the jackpot. Not only did her husband love this concoction, her neighbors whom she shared her food with encouraged her to set up a stall to sell it.
And that was how a small stall along the Kallang River—complete with little wooden tables and stools, lit with a couple of kerosene lamps—was started. This small business introduced Chilli Crab to Singaporeans, and proved so popular it was quickly replicated by many others and over time grew to become the icon of Singapore cuisine.
That original Chilli Crab recipe can still be found today at Roland Restaurant, owned by Cher’s son, Roland Lim, born one year after she started her business. His first memory was of the fisherman coming by with fresh catch, asking his mother if she was interested in any of it.
“At that time we didn’t have a licence and would always be running away from the police,” he recalls. “Our stall was confiscated many times, and we would have to shift location every few days.”
Despite the “excitement” of this business, Lim’s fondest memory remains hanging out at the sandy beach peppered with whitewashed cockle shells, where his mother sold her dish. His voice rings with nostalgia as he recalls the first “dish” he cooked at the stall.
“I started helping out at the stall full-time when I was just 13 years old. My mother put me in charge of cooking the cockles,” he says, his voice reflecting the pride he must have felt at that time. “The cockles cannot be too cooked so that requires skill. I slowly moved on to learning to cook noodles, and finally the Chilli Crab.”
The stall grew to become the well-known Palm Beach Restaurant, which was later sold when the Lim family moved to Christchurch, New Zealand. But the Lims soon found the relaxed culture in New Zealand not ideal for doing business, and moved back to Singapore. Lim returned, ready to continue his family business.
“The biggest mistake we made was selling away the name of our restaurant. Many of our old regular customers had no idea that I was back, and that I had started my own brand with Roland Restaurant in 2000.”
Good Times Again
Within two years of operation, word spread and the old regulars of Palm Beach Restaurant began patronizing Roland Restaurant. Today, Lim sees the fourth generations of his mother’s customers becoming his regulars.
The restaurant is run by Lim, 54, his younger brother Richard, younger sister Diana and Lim’s youngest son, Justin. He has also re-employed some of the crew—both kitchen staff and waiters—who were loyal workers at Palm Beach Restaurant.
Ah Yong, one of his longest-serving chefs, started working in Lim’s mother’s kitchen when he was 19, and is still faithfully cooking up delicacies some 40 years later.
This could be one of the reason why regulars agree that the dishes at Roland Restaurant still have the original taste though years have gone by.
“A lot of places offer Chilli Crab nowadays, but we cook ours the traditional way. The sauce is very authentic, and you can feel the punch when you eat it with small pieces of French loaf,” says Lim.
Besides Chilli Crab, yusheng, a Chinese New Year dish is also another signature in Roland Restaurant.
“I learned the recipe from my godfather, Sin Leong, one of the four chefs who invented the modern yusheng dish. Many customers requested that I make this a permanent dish on my menu, but I feel that a festive dish should be kept for the festival, or else it will no longer be special,” he explains.
Roland Restaurant’s other top eats are the Black Sauce Prawn, which cannot be found anywhere else in Singapore, and the Fried Baby Squid.
Two months ago, the restaurant began offering dim sum on their lunch menu. It turned out to be a big hit among the elderly in the Marine Parade neighborhood. No big surprise, seeing that the dim sum dishes are at a flat rate of S$2.95. On weekends, the dim sum is served on pushcarts the traditional way.
Another hit with the regulars are the side stalls in the restaurant that offer a variety of local food on the weekends. The menu changes weekly, giving customers an element of surprise every time.
The 1,100-seat restaurant and its five VIP rooms are often used to host events and anniversary dinners of various churches in Singapore. This is because, aside from the great good, Lim works out great deals for the churches as well. Roland Restaurant is also well-known for sponsoring luncheons for the underprivileged.
“God has blessed me since I started Roland Restaurant, and I wanted to do something to bless others,” says Lim. “Giving discounts and offering good prices for church functions is the way I give back to God for blessing me.”
Preparing The Next Generation
Now that business is on track, the father of four has time to indulge his other hobbies. A photography buff, his eye and camera lens are continually on the lookout for nice streets, beautiful scenery and unusual sights. To keep himself fit for work, he walks his dog every night for two kilometers.
Lim’s biggest dream for Roland Restaurant is strangely different from most business owners. It is not to start a new franchise or to move downtown, but for his son Justin, 23, to learn the ropes of running his business and to take over one day.
“I want this business to go on because I am very proud of my mother. She started a dish that became Singapore’s icon, and I want Chilli Crab to always be available in Singapore,” says Lim.
“I have told my son, he can change the menu any way he wants, but the one thing he can’t do is to take Chilli Crab out.”
Block 89, Marine Parade Central, #06-750
+65 6440 8205