This Vegan Chili ‘Crab’ 辣椒素螃蟹 (Là jiāo sù páng xiè) is scrumptious with an appetizing sauce that goes so well with a few steamed or fried buns or a bowl of rice. The recipe is easy, flavorsome, and packed with a healthy vegetable that is sure to whet your appetite.
What is Chili Crab
Chili Crab is a very well-known dish from Singapore and Malaysia and CNN Travel named it as one of the World’s 50 Best Foods. This is a favorite dish for locals and tourists alike.
What makes this dish so special to me? I must say, it’s all in that finger-licking sweet and spicy sauce that I could wipe the plate clean using a few fried buns.
While all chefs have a secret blend of ingredients, the taste of the sauce is a perfect blend of sweet, spicy, sour, and pack with umami that keeps you wanting for more. For the final touch, chefs will add a beaten egg and then serve this with rice or fried buns.
I am always in search of ways to veganize my childhood favorites and in this recipe, I used battered cauliflower to replace the crab. Cauliflower is so versatile and if you think you don’t like cauliflower, then try this recipe.
These florets are delicious as-is but they taste even more amazing when you coat them in the pool of yummy sauce. So, join me and make some Vegan Chili ‘Crab’ with the steps below.
How to make Vegan Chili ‘Crab’
I summarized the process into 3 parts where I have all the ingredients ready-to-go. If you plan to serve this with rice or steamed buns, then you can skip Part B.
Part A – Prepare the cauliflower
Step 1: Prepare the cauliflower by removing the tough stem and leaves. Using a paring knife, cut cauliflower into bite-sized florets. Rinse florets thoroughly with water and drain them on dry or paper towels. This step is to prevent excess water from diluting the batter.
Step 2: Mix all the batter ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to combine.
Step 3: Preheat the air-fryer to 390°F or 200°C for 3 minutes or based on the appliance’s instruction. Dredge florets in the batter, shake off excess, and place them into the inner air fryer rack. Air fry until golden brown, about 12 – 15 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Part B – Prepare the buns
Step 1: Brush Steamed Bun – Mantou ‘馒头’ with oil
Step 2: Place them on a preheated air fryer, and air fry for 3 – 5 mins until golden brown. Then, set aside until ready to use.
Part C – How to make the sauce and serve
Step 1: Heat a non-stick pan with 2 tablespoons oil. Then, sauté ginger and shallots until shallots turn translucent. Add the garlic, Thai chili, and continue to sauté for another 30-40 secs.
Step 2: Add the sambal, ketchup, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce, and salt, then stir until all ingredients are incorporated. Slowly pour in the veggie broth and bring the mixture to a rolling boil. Then let it simmer until slightly thickened. Note: I used the Easy Vegan Sambal in this recipe.
Step 3: Mash the silken tofu with a fork a few times until fine, then add to the sauce and stir until well combined. To thicken the sauce, add about a tablespoon of cornstarch slurry and stir to combine. Adjust the sauce’s thickness to your preference, which is more cornstarch slurry for a thicker texture and vice versa.
Step 4: While the sauce is simmering, slowly add the air-fried cauliflower florets and mix well until all florets are coated with sauce. Cook down the sauce slightly and turn off the heat.
Step 5: Ladle this delicious dish into a serving bowl and serve with the above fried buns or rice.
3 ways to prepare the cauliflower florets
1. Air-fried – is the method I used that gave the florets a crispy golden brown layer on the outside even though no oil was used.
2. Baked – Preheat oven to 425°F or 220°C. Dip the cauliflower florets in the batter then shake off excess. Be sure the whole floret is covered with batter. Lay florets on a sheet of parchment paper, in a single layer. Brush or spray cooking oil on each floret, then bake until golden brown, about 25 – 30 mins, with a flip in between if needed. Note: Use oil that can withstand high heat.
3. Fried – Fill a small pot with a cup of oil. Heat up the oil to about 350°F or 177°C. There are many ways to test the oil temperature such as using a thermometer or a chopstick. I like the latter method the most, simply stick a wooden chopstick into the heated oil.
If you see small bubbles around the chopstick, then it’s ready for frying. On the other hand, if there are vigorous bubbles around the chopstick, then the oil is too hot. You can turn off the heat and let it cool down a little before reheating it to the right temperature.
The sauce is a unique balance of sweet, sour, and spicy that you can adjust accordingly based on your taste preference. Here is the list of ingredients and products I used along with substitution.
Sweet – I used Thai sweet chili sauce to get this and you can sweeten this dish with some coconut sugar.
Sour – I find that Heinz Ketchup has a great sourness for this dish. However, if you are using ketchup that is sweeter, then adjust it with rice vinegar or lime juice or tamarind juice to get that tangy flavor.
Spicy – I used my homemade sambal and Thai chili for the spicy kick and can be replaced with any chili sauces. Note: Some chili sauce is salty or sweeter, so adjust those tastes accordingly during cooking.
Variations and Cooking Tips
- Substitute cauliflower with broccoli florets or mushrooms such as King Oyster, Oyster, and Lion’s Mane.
- Add a few sprinkles of Furikake seasoning or Dulse flakes in the batter if you are keen on a taste of the sea.
- Make a large batch of sauce and refrigerate until ready to use. This sauce tastes great as-is or as a dipping sauce.
- Use silken tofu to give you the best ‘eggy’ texture.
- Gluten-free – use a gluten-free flour blend to make the batter and substitute the sauces accordingly for a gluten-free version of this dish.
This Vegan Chili ‘Crab’ recipe is
- Finger-licking good
- Customizable – use a gluten-free flour blend for the batter and substitute soy sauce accordingly for a gluten-free option
- Perfect for make-ahead meals
If you try this recipe, I would love to hear your feedback and see your beautiful re-creation. Leave me a comment, rate it, and tag @woon.heng and #woonheng to your photos on Instagram or Facebook. Happy cooking, friends!
Vegan Chili ‘Crab’
- 1 small cauliflower ~ 580g
- 2 tablespoons ginger chopped
- 2 tablespoons shallots chopped
- 1 tablespoon garlic chopped
- 2 Thai chili or red chili chopped
- 1 oz [30g] extra soft tofu
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch slurry
- oil for cooking
Batter for Cauliflower
- 115 g [¾ cup] all-purpose flour see notes if using a measurement cup
- 155 ml [½ + 2 tablespoons] water or more adjusted depending on the brand
- ¾ teaspoon salt adjust according to taste
- a pinch of black pepper
Sweet Chili Sauce
- 1 tablespoon sambal
- 4 tablespoons ketchup
- 4 tablespoons sweet chili sauce
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
- ½ teaspoon salt adjust accordingly
- 236 ml [1 ½ cups] vegetable broth adjust depending on how saucy you need
Prepare the cauliflower
- Prepare the cauliflower by removing the tough stem and leaves. Using a paring knife, cut cauliflower into bite-sized florets.
- Rinse florets thoroughly with water and drain them on dry or paper towels.
Prepare the batter
- To make the batter, mix flour, salt, and black pepper in a bowl until well-combined. Then, add the water while whisking vigorously until you get a thick batter.
- Preheat the air-fryer to 390°F or 200°C for 3 minutes or based on the appliance's instruction.
- Dredge florets in the batter, shake off excess, and place them into the inner air fryer rack. Lay battered florets in one layer and air-fry for 12 minutes or until golden brown and set aside.
How to make the sauce
- To make the sauce, heat a non-stick pan with 2 tablespoons of oil. Sauté ginger and shallots for a minute or two or until shallots turn translucent.
- Then, add garlic, Thai chili, and continue to sauté for another 30-40 secs. Add the rest of the sauces in and give it another quick stir.
- Slowly pour in the vegetable broth and bring the mixture to a rolling boil, then let it simmer until slightly thickened.
- Using a fork, mash silken tofu into pieces and add it into the sauce, then stir to combine.
- To thicken the sauce, add about a tablespoon of cornstarch slurry and stir to combine.
- While the sauce is cooking, slowly add in the cauliflower florets and toss them with the sauce until all florets are well-coated. Cook down the sauce slightly and turn off the heat.
- Ladle into a serving bowl and garnish with chopped cilantro. Serve warm with rice or fried buns.
- To measure flour in the cup, I used the spoon & sweep method. Spoon flour into a standard measuring cup, then level the top with a knife without packing the flour, which I had about ~63g in 1/2 cup.
- For a gluten-free batter mix, use a gluten-free flour blend and adjust the water to get a thick batter.
- For other ways to prepare the cauliflower, please check the ‘3 ways to prepare cauliflower’ section for more details.
- To make the fried buns or mantou, first, make the buns using Steamed Bun – Mantou ‘馒头’ then:
- Brush buns with oil
- Place them on a preheated air fryer, and air fry for 3 mins until golden brown. Then, set aside until ready to use.
- I used Thai sweet chili sauce and Easy Vegan Sambal in this recipe. For a less spicy version, you can use mild sambal or omit it completely.