When I was working on Pulau Galang, the Indonesian refugee camp for refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, I had to make regular trips to Singapore every three months to renew my visa. All of the foreign workers in the camp had these special three-month visas rather than the typical one-year work visas so the government could easily prohibit us from returning to the camp if we caused any trouble. As Singapore was just a couple of hours away by boat, and the process took three days, it was a nice break from the camp and a welcome change from the dining hall routine.
One of the dishes I have enjoyed on different visits to Singapore is the fried baby squid (although I think it's probably baby cuttlefish). These are whole, baby cuttlefish that are first deep fried and then finished in a sweet sauce. Done right, they are delicious. Unfortunately, I've sometimes had them when the cook didn't do right by them and I was faced with a pile of cloyingly sweet, rubbery aliens from the sea. Squid is one of those dishes that either is cooked right or is a disaster. If the first time someone tries squid, the cook fucks it up, that person will probably never try squid again.
When I usually cook squid, which is not often, I use frozen squid, as this is what is most often available. A few weeks back I noticed that Sunh Fish, where I buy most of my seafood, had some fresh squid in their case. I didn't buy any at that time, but made note of it so that I might take advantage of some fresh squid next time they had some in when I was there. That day came a few days ago and I bought a couple of pounds.
I had planned to make some grilled squid, cumi panggang, but when I got the squid home and cleaned them, I felt they were too delicate for such an approach. Once cleaned, there were around thirty squid to a pound. The bodies were extremely thin walled, about the thickness of a slice of skin from a careless moment with the mandoline. Although I didn't think I could do them justice on the grill, I knew they would be great fried.
I intended to try the recipe from The Food of Singapore, a book that I generally like. After frying a few pieces of squid following its recipe, however, I decided to ditch that recipe and try my own approach. The original recipe calls for a marinade in a batter of curry powder, cornstarch, soy sauce, and egg. The fried squid tasted good, but didn't have the delicately crisp exterior that I prefer. Discarding the wet ingredients, I kept the curry powder and cornstarch, and added some rice flour. Dredging the squid in this mixture provided just the taste and texture I was looking for.
The sauce is even simpler. To a half cup of Yeo's Sweet Chili Sauce, I stirred in about two tablespoons of kecap manis Cap Nonya. This was heated in a wok and then the fried squid were added and tossed with the sauce to coat. The result was at least as good as any squid I've ever had in Singapore, or anywhere else. If you like calamari, this is a dish I would definitely recommend.
Crispy Fried Squid in a Sweet Hot Sauce
2 pounds small, fresh squid or 1 pound cleaned, frozen squid, thawed
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup rice flour
3 TBS curry powder
2 tsp sugar
oil for deep frying
1/2 cup Yeo's Sweet Chili Sauce (I prefer Lingham's, but it wasn't at the market I went to on this day)
2 to 3 TBS kecap manis
water, as needed, to thin the sauce if necessary
Clean the squid and remove the eyes and beak from the tentacles. Lightly score the inside of the bodies in a crosshatch diagonal pattern and cut into strips. Dredge the prepared squid in the cornstarch mixture. Fry in batches in hot oil for about 30 seconds. Drain on paper towels.
After all the squid has been fried, heat the chili sauce and kecap manis in a wok or pan that can easily accommodate the squid. Toss the squid briefly in the heated sauce, plate, and serve.