It’s unusual to see plates of sambal skate – skate wings cooked in a chilli sauce – resting on the counter of a Perth restaurant. And fish curries laden with fresh, meaty fillets of red emperor? You don’t see those every day, either. The same goes for establishments where the 75-year-old proprietor plays the roles of both cook and waiter. Rajah’s Curry, it’s safe to say, isn’t your garden-variety Asian eatery, right down to its (temporary) location inside another restaurant.
The septuagenarian in question is Sarunga Raja. In April, Raja and wife Santa relocated their restaurant Rajah’s Curry from Singapore’s Katong neighbourhood to Victoria Park. Admittedly, the couple moved to be closer to family and prepare for retirement, but for now, their days are spent slinging true tastes of the island nation.
“I’m a Singaporean, so I pick from everything,” says Raja of his self-taught approach to cooking. “I pick from the Chinese, I pick from the Indian, I pick from the Malay, and then I bring my own combinations. That’s where you get the difference. You will never find this kind of taste [elsewhere].”
Our man has a point. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a particularly capable Singaporean or Malaysian cook in your family, Rajah’s is one of the few places in Perth to score uniquely Straits dishes like sotong masak hitam, black-pepper squid stained ebony with the mollusc’s ink and spiced up with lethal scud chillies. The menu offers two chicken curries: the chilli curry features chunks of chook coated in an incandescent oil, while the milder curry chicken lolls in a creamy, more rounded sauce. When the conversation turns to specific spice blends, mum’s the word for the usually talkative Raja, but whatever he’s doing in the kitchen, it’s working.
As was the case in Singapore, fish-head curry is Raja’s calling card. While this oft-overlooked cut affords intrepid eaters much pleasure (seasoned diners know the soft, yielding cheek meat is the most prized part of the fish), the sauce is where the real joy lies. Light in body but brimming with sour tamarind, okra and baby eggplant, it’s the sort of gravy that turns white rice from a meal into a moment. Occasionally you’ll get lucky and the kitchen will have fish heads on hand, but calling ahead and making a pre-order is never a bad idea, especially on weekends. You’ll also want to assemble a crew of eaters: this is a menu best tackled in numbers.
At the very least, dining with company adds much-needed sparkle to the dining experience. Unless you’ve got a thing for rooms painted Oompa Loompa orange, there’s little about the setting or ambience to write home about. Thankfully, it's just a temporary fix and the Rajas tell Broadsheet they're actively searching out a home of their own. This lack of thrills, however, isn't a deal-breaker: once the food arrives, it’s very much game on. Singapore has never felt or tasted closer.
Jewel of the Park, 765 Albany Highway, East Victoria Park
0413 178 137
Fri to Wed 12pm–3pm