Fish Head Curry

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We’re getting some very strange weather in Brisbane—the kind that smacks of Melbourne’s nowadays which means I’m a little afraid to pack away our long-sleeved and warm apparel. I might actually even leave my jacket on the coat rack together with the poncho, gumboots and umbrellas for this stormy wet season. What’s a ‘shorts-and-flip-flops’ Queenslander to do when the weather acts up and in between hot and balmy springtime, nature decides to play cruel jokes? Like how just this morning, you find yourself doing an involuntary, undignified arctic song and dance in your birthday suit coming out of the shower? Between the towel rail and the shower door was a bloodcurdling scream befitting of the Halloween weekend (not that I would ever personally endorse Halloween in any way). We don’t do Halloween. Nope.

This could only mean one thing. It’s time to chase away the blues and gloomy weather upon us with some spicy comfort food to warm the soul and body. The kind that reminds me of tropical Singapore and Malaysia, where spice is certainly the essence. I smell ginger, fennel, pepper, lemongrass and curry leaves. Mmmmm.

I love that Malay and Indian curries are so robustly flavourful—incorporating their melange of herbs and spices that are either ‘wet’—shallots, ginger, garlic, fresh chillies, turmeric root or ‘dry’—that gorgeous stuff like cumin, fennel, coriander, star aniseed, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom…

One of my favourite comfort curries from Singapore would have to be the unique Fish Head Curry, essentially an Indian restaurant dish that has been localised by Singapore, like its many varied and similarly unique Singaporean hybrid dishes. Its origins are south Indian in nature. Well, colourful food lore has it that some enterprising Indian chef had the idea to localise his South Indian cuisine with the aim of catering to a wider clientele, notably the majority of Chinese customers in Singapore who enjoy ‘fish head’ as a Chinese delicacy. Today, there are sub-hybrids of Fish Head Curry even served at Malay, Chinese and Peranakan restaurants anywhere in Singapore.

The most famous restaurant to be credited with popularising Fish Head Curry is indisputably Muthu’s Curry in Dempsey Road in Singapore, and as they claim, they’ve been serving passionately since 1969, gee…that’s even before yours truly had even been born. I love how they have even evolved to serving Tandoori Fish Head (as a non-spicy alternative) these days in their now fancy and updated heritage stamped traditional south Indian fare establishment.

Many locals complain it isn’t as great as it used to be in the old days before their physical and brand revamp, but I suppose being far away from Singapore means I’ve simply become a lot more forgiving these days and hence grateful for any authentic local fare that would still top the disappointing roll of Asian-food-impostors here in Australia. The British would say ‘rubbish’ and the Aussies—‘shonky’?

I hope you’ll love this recipe of my great-great-great grandmother’s. Or so my mum tells me.
But I think that’s just mum giving credit to a beautiful family recipe she wants me to think the world of. And I’ve adapted it, so that some future grand daughter could one day, after I’m long gone, credit it as her great-great-great-great grandmother’s? Keep warm and don’t be caught without your umbrella, parka and a great smile.

Fish Head Curry Ingredients:
1 red snapper fish head (or sea bream or sea bass)
2 fillets of snapper 
2 brinjals (or aubergines)
8 ladyfingers or okra
2 tomatoes

Rempah (spice paste) Grind, pound or process the following:
3 fresh large chillies 
10-12 dried chillies(soaked in warm water then squeezed dry, liquid discarded)
1 TB fennel seeds (pounded)
2” galangal root
1/2″ fresh turmeric root
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
3/4 C small shallots (or spanish onion if shallots unavailable)
1″ cube belachan* (fermented shrimp paste)
1 TB cooking oil

*available from Asian grocers in Australia

Other Seasoning To Add:
2 TB cooking oil
2 stalks lemongrass(white part only)
2 TB curry leaves (stalks discarded)
1 TB curry powder (mixed with a tiny little warm water to make a mustard-like paste)
1-2 Tb tamarind paste(or 1/2 C tamarind juice strained from 2 tsp fresh tamarind)
1 Tb sugar
1/2 can coconut milk
500ml *fish stock (or water)
squeeze of lime before serving
*can be substituted with chicken stock or water if unavailable
fish sauce and soy sauce (to taste, optional)

Heat oil and stir-fry the shallots until fragrant.
Add the spice paste, mix well with shallots in the wok, ensuring you do not burn the mixture.
Add the curry powder (already paste-like after mixing with water)
Add the fish head and shallow fry it with the spice mixture. Turn it over once to sear and cook the other side.
Add the fillets of snapper and turn once as well.
Add a can of coconut milk to the wok, add the sugar and tamarind paste or juice.
Add the curry leaves, lemongrass and lastly, toss in the tomatoes, brinjals and okra.
Add the fish stock or water. If desired, season with some fish sauce and soy sauce.
Let it simmer till fish is cooked, and until vegetables are tender. Best served with jasmine rice or basmati rice.

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