The King’s reign ends in twelve days: squid ink curry aka black sotong curry

Black Sotong Official

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.

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The Burning Man: A geographical analysis of a new-age pilgrimage

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At the top of “6 o’clock”, a main street in Black Rock City, Nevada

The folks at UC Berkeley’s library have just kindly dug out my Geography Undergraduate Honours Thesis from 2002 and scanned it. I had somehow lost every single copy, a depressing combination of hard-drive crashes and absent-minded post-graduation packing.

It was interesting for me to reread it now, both for reminiscence sake and to ponder how my writing has changed over the years.

The Burning Man is a yearly festival in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert that I have now attended thrice: in 2002 when I was walking around with a notebook interviewing people; in 2003, sans notebook, to partake in all the art, joy and partying that I had missed the year before; and in 2009 when my sister, brother-in-law, cousins and very good friend wanted to go for the very first time.

The Burning Man is very close to my heart, partly because of the great art on offer and partly because by living for a week in “the gift economy”, where money can’t buy you anything, one learns to appreciate labour and human interaction outside the mental confines of commerce. (One also learns to appreciate just how long the human body can go without a shower.)

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Why I like Sticker Lady

By covering up banal pedestrian fixtures, Sticker Lady has exposed a divide. As soon as she was caught, some labelled her a vandal, lumping her with brats who seriously damage public property for no apparent reason. But that ignores both the impermanence of her work and the laughter her cheekiness provokes.

Others try to vilify her by taking her art to its logical extreme, creating, for instance, photoshopped images of her stickers covering traffic lights, implying that the police had nipped in the bud some adhesive monster. But any idea taken to the extreme can be dangerous.

Still others have suggested that all “art” in Singapore requires approval. This misunderstands the very nature of art. One of the greatest counter-culture art festivals in the world, Burning Man, began in 1986 when 20 people burned an effigy on a beach without approval. Today, it draws some 50,000 people annually. Artists, creators and innovators live on the edge of society, pushing our collective boundaries. By boxing them up, Singapore clips their wings.

“Much of the Beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium,” Henri Matisse said. The genius of Sticker Lady’s work is that she adroitly treads the line between humour and inconvenience. Like all great street art, her little messages create inner dialogues between passers-by and hitherto inconspicuous public spaces. They force us to take pause and question the subconscious actions the urban madness breeds—“Will pumping the button twice really let you cross the road faster?”

Perhaps the most romantic aspect of Sticker Lady’s art is that it is truly Singaporean. One needs to be steeped in local culture to really grasp the nuance of “kancheong”. As Singaporeans struggle with an identity constantly in flux, pulled this way and that by global currents, it is wonderfully refreshing to encounter random reminders of what it means to be Singaporean.

Of course Sticker Lady must be punished, just like other public performers who break rules. But how so? If we let Singapore’s supposed vulnerability guide our instincts, then we might retreat to the pragmatism and safety of strict vandalism laws. Because we have to show that we treat all “vandals” the same, that we tolerate no nonsense, as we preserve the sanctity of our hallowed streets.

But we would miss a few opportunities. First, to show that, as a thinking, tolerant society, we know how to differentiate between alleged annoyances and criminals, rather than tarring all with the same brush. Second, to encourage people who want to push boundaries in a considered way—whether they be in business, civil society or art—to go ahead and do so. Third to acknowledge that, while we will always be a country run by the rule of law, we are compassionate and educated enough to periodically negotiate its application.

The way we treat Sticker Lady will reflect how far (or not) we have come. Ordinary Singaporeans will take their creative cue from the top. So, let’s slap her on the wrists and then pin a medal on her.