Singapore is soon to lose one of its great chefs and personalities when Rajah’s Curry closes—its last day of operations is Dec 13th 2015. Mr Rajah is planning on retiring and moving his business to Perth.
Mr Rajah is the man who revolutionised South Indian cooking in Singapore in 1972 by declaring “No MSG, No Coconut Milk and No Yogurt in any of his cooking”.
Though he has a broad repertoire, and his fish head curry is justifiably popular, I want to focus on my favourite dish.
There are many expressions of squid ink around the world—in paella, pasta, risotto, and more—but for me it reaches its apogee in squid ink curry. I am partial, however, to the intense South Indian variety, not the much milder Malay sotong masak hitam.1
It delivers a roundhouse kick to your senses, as sharp acid notes and fiery spice, from the various chillies and the black pepper, enliven the earthiness of squid ink. Depending on your palette’s sensitivities, it can cause you to scrunch up your face or gasp for air. Often, both.
This is not a dish easily found. Though I first tried it in Malaysia, I actually don’t even know of any other Indian shops in Singapore which make it.2 When I first tried Rajah’s version in 2006, I wanted to cry.
And the truth is I did, largely because of the diced green chilli padis he sprinkles liberally on top, the only touch of colour on the black, almost ghoulish, heaving curry mass. It seems an unnecessary, cheeky accoutrement, like the whipped cream on top of the Milo Godzilla.
Yet over time I grew fond of it, and now feel underwhelmed when my black sotong is under-greened.
The squid itself is wonderfully succulent, although in recent years Mr Rajah has bemoaned the fact that his preferred small squids are getting harder to find. So he has to make do with the much bigger, five-inched tubes, which are just a tad rubbery. Their only saving grace—though maybe not for the faint-hearted—is that they occasionally come stuffed full of white roe.
Mr Rajah, whose irrepressible smile is framed by tousled jet-black hair, white sideburns, a thick moustache and a little lower-lip tuft, is a wealth of information and opinion on everything from local politics to climate change and the commercial overfishing that have decimated small squid populations.
His food has become intertwined with my life. In 2008, I took a group of foreign friends who had flown in for my wedding to eat at Rajah’s Curry. At that point he was still at his original little stall tucked within the Jalan Tua Kong coffeeshop in Siglap.
We had lunch there on Thursday. On Saturday afternoon, Reda, a Moroccan and one of my best friends from graduate school, arrived late to the wedding ceremony at the church on Upper East Coast Road.
“When the taxi turned onto East Coast Road, I saw the coffeeshop and I just had to stop,” he reasoned.”Who knows when next?”
For a Moroccan on his first visit to Singapore to recognise a random Chinese coffeeshop in the East Coast is, I later told Mr Rajah, a great endorsement of his work.
Singapore’s red-hot property market (sales, rising rentals, etc.) then forced Mr Rajah into a series of moves—briefly to Kembangan, then Block 89 Marine Parade Central, then to current location: 263 Joo Chiat Place, S(427945). (Tel: 9380 7404, Tues-Thurs 11am-5pm; Fri-Sun 11am-830pm.)
Through it all he never lost his flair. At the opening of the Block 89 stall, he had a giant banner outside the coffeeshop: “The King is Back”.
In 2009, Rajah’s black sotong curry became an instant hit in an unlikely place: the middle of the Nevada desert.
I had first gotten acquainted with the Burning Man Festival when I wrote my undergraduate thesis on it in 2002. On my second trip, in 2003, we flew the Singapore flag by trying to make ais kachang for other “burners”. (Ice and coffee are the only two things money can buy, officially, at Burning Man.)
Epic fail. Many Americans, older, perhaps more conservative (food-wise), were put off by the multi-coloured syrups and jellies we were trying to feed them. Furthermore at that point, the culinary arts weren’t as developed at Burning Man, there weren’t that many “food camps”, and so the idea of sharing food hadn’t really cottoned on.
Fast forward to 2009, and my third trip. Mr Rajah made me four tupperwares of black sotong curry, which I then froze, checked-in for the flight, and then carried on the eight-hour drive from San Francisco to Black Rock City.
Of course, greedy, we ate two of the four just by ourselves in our camp. But on Saturday afternoon, when the Burning Man population is tense and excitable ahead of the actual burning of the man that same night, we carried our portable camping stove out onto the dusty street and started reheating Mr Rajah’s black sotong curry.
One by one they came, till a line had formed. We limited each person to one spoon. Some immediately rejoined the line. One guy who was cycling by had a quick taste before riding off, still chewing. Five minutes later, he had returned with his own spoon.
People were simply blown away. Many said it was the best thing they had ever eaten at Burning Man. And by then, there were quite a few food camps there.
All a reflection too of the fact that American tastebuds have evolved dramatically in the past fifteen years, not least in their appreciation for novel foods and chilli.
Mr Rajah later told me that I am just one of many people who carry his foods to faraway lands. Among others, there is a Korean businessman as well as a Thai, who often stop on their way to Changi.
There is so much more I can write about Mr Rajah, but I’ll leave that for another day.
For those of us who like squid ink, we sadly have only twelve days left.
Mr Rajah at his stall a few weeks ago
Mr Rajah’s black sotong curry at Burning Man, Black Rock City, Nevada, 2009
1 A Google search of “Squid curry” might lead you to the sweeter Japanese varietals. Though I enjoy a good Japanese (brown) curry, I don’t find anything special about their black squid ink curry. Your best bet for recipes is a search for “Sotong Masak Hitam”. But, as mentioned, that is the Malay dish, not the Indian. I wish I knew more about the latter’s provenance, and maybe one day I’ll find out.
2 Though Indians in South India have told me they know of/can cook the dish, I have never actually tried one there. Any references there, or elsewhere, much appreciated.