SEMIO OBJECTS (19)

By: Wei Fen Lee
June 8, 2021

One in a series of 25 nonfiction narratives about semioticians’ significant objects. Presented to HILOBROW’s readers by Project:Object.

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CURRY PUFF POT

Sunset over wats and coconut trees. Biking far and fast past the Mekong and padi fields and empty roads. Exploding bougainvillaeas under a clear blue sky.

It was here in Luang Prabang that I discovered the curry puff pot. In Laos, “land of a million elephants”, the prevailing wisdom is that most tourists take home textiles as a souvenir. Some pack in saa paper for a postcard or two. Everyone aims for local, handmade, and fair trade. For some suspiciously twisted reason, I was drawn to the one pretty thing on the roadside that reminded me of oily, deep-fried food from home.

On our last day of put-put-putting around the outskirts of town on our rental scooters, bare frangipani trees and tin roofs flying by, we rode past a dusty little shop. Pots, earthern pots, basic ordinary everyday everyman pots for ordinary homes, big and and small, but all with their curry puff edges. Screeched to a halt. Confirmed that these unglazed clay pots were something special, each wearing a flirty ruffle on their tops. Made the inconvenient decision to fly home with three of these pots of varying sizes, the largest of which was larger than my head. I don’t remember now how I got them home in a small hand carry luggage with no check-in. What I do remember: the air smelled of smoky contentment.

Later, I found out that from the Middle East, the Persian sambosag travelled west to become the empanada of Iberia, and east to become India’s samosa, and maybe, the British Cornish pasty. Somewhere between then and now, here and there — thanks to the Dutch, the Portuguese, the English, or perhaps an original invention — the curry puff popped up here in Southeast Asia.

Crispy and golden, filled with curried potatoes and some variation of chicken, sardines, peas, or eggs, a good curry puff is flaky and fresh. At its best, it is the highest expression of flour, oil, and water. A love letter from a machik. A significant contributor to this pleasure lies in its edge, its sealed sides that delivers that precise extra bite of fried flavour. I am obsessed with this little flourish, the same little flourish I found at the ends of these pots – hence the name “curry puff pots”.

The nonya curry puff, the Chinese karipap, the Malay epok epok, Indonesia’s pastel, and my little Laos clay curry puff pot — what spiritual guiding force led ancient hands to decide how to finish them; whether to crimp, to fold, to braid, or to pinch?

Is this a reunion in the ex-colonies, of curry puff cousins, from pastry to pot? Or is it the gentle gestural thread of human instinct — to place our fat thumbs in places malleable? To end a project with a flourish, to embellish the edges?

Or perhaps, just a celebration of the ordinary. Of potatoes and peas, flour and oil, clay and dust. Of potters and roadside pastry chefs. Of marigold sunsets from somewhere else, and bright solid joy in a tiny little town.

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SEMIO OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Chris Arning on INKSTONE BROOM | Hamsini Shivakumar on SOUL MOTHER SAREES| Lucia Laurent-Neva on SPONGEBOB BUS | Samuel Grange on SALT & PEPPER HOLDER| Ximena Tobi on VASALISA | Luca Marchetti on TEAPOT | Charles Leech on ORNAMENT| Gabriela Pedranti on MAFALDA DOLL | Sarah Johnson on JOAN OF ARC FIGURINE | Vijay Parthasarathy on BINGO | Aiyana Gunjan on WEDDING DUCKS | Serdar Paktin on NEY | Paulina Goch-Kenawy on VASE | Daria Arkhipova on POKER CHIP | Iván Islas on THERMOS| Sónia Marques on CABBAGE TUREEN | Thierry Mortier on BICYCLE BELL | Louise Jolly on CHALICES | Wei Fen Lee on CURRY PUFF POT | Mariane Cara on MINI WINDSOCK | Malex Salamanques Amiel on MARIA LIONZA | Seema Khanwalkar on THANJAVUR DOLL | Maria Papanthymou on KITCHEN WHISK | Martha Arango on ST. ANTHONY OF PADUA | Max Matus on WOODEN ROBOT.

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MOVIE OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Ramona Lyons on EYE OF THE SERPENT (CONAN THE BARBARIAN) | Faythe Levine on BEDKNOB (BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS) | Gerald Peary on CUP OF COFFEE (THE BIG HEAT) | Christopher Orr on TOM’S HAT (MILLER’S CROSSING) | Lynn Peril on TRANSISTOR RADIO (DR. STRANGELOVE) | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 2): INTRODUCTION | Joe Yonan on MACRAMÉ ART (ill. Theo Ellsworth) | Ben Katchor on LUCITE CARRYING CASE | Debbie Millman on GLASS POODLE | Lydia Millet on ROCKY HORROR NOVEL (ill. Berta Valló) | Ben Greenman on WARHOL CAN (ill. Clara Selina Bach) | & 20 MORE.

FETISHES: INTRODUCTION | Josh Foer on DEATH MASK | Beth Lisick on MURDERED-OUT KFC BUCKET | Christina Couch on LEECH ACTION FIGURE | Kenneth Goldsmith on THEWLIS SOCK | Abby Rapoport on MAGNATILES | & 20 MORE.

FOSSILS: INTRODUCTION | Allegra Huston on SKATAWAY JACKET | Kevin Obsatz on HOMEMADE NUNCHUKS | Ian Bogost on DESKTOP TELEPHONE | Jeff Lewonczyk on CHA-CHA JACKET SCRAP | Kelly Horan on VOLVO KEY | & 20 MORE.

FLAIR: INTRODUCTION | Cliff Kuang on ROLEX DATEJUST | Ethan Zuckerman on LAPTOP STICKERS | Ann Shoket on LEATHER JACKET | Kembrew McLeod on KEMBREW MERCH | Paola Antonelli on MERMAID TEARS | & 20 MORE.

LOST OBJECTS (vol. 1): INTRODUCTION | Kate Bernheimer on MULLET WIG (ill. Amy Evans) | Dan Piepenbring on COLOGNE (ill. Josh Neufeld) | Doug Dorst on STRATOCASTER (ill. John Holbo) | Paul Lukas on VANILLA BEAN (ill. Allison Bamcat) | Mimi Lipson on DODGE DART (ill. Mister Reusch) | & 20 MORE.

ILLICIT OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | & 20 MORE.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 1 series (4Q2017) | FLAIR series (2Q2018) | FOSSIL series (4Q2018) | FETISHES series (2Q2019) | LOST OBJECTS vol. 2 series (4Q2019) | MOVIE OBJECTS series (2Q2020) | SEMIO OBJECTS series (2Q2021). ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY excerpts.

Categories

Codebreaking, Semiotics

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