• Fish head curry (Sharyn Cairns)Source: Sharyn Cairns

This Malaysian family favourite uses a whole fish head for maximum flavour and visual impact. Food Safari Water 






Skill level

Average: 3 (28 votes)


  • 750 ml (3 cups) chicken stock or water, approximately
  • 3 cm piece galangal, sliced
  • 1 tomato, cut into wedges
  • 4 okra, tops removed, cut in half diagonally
  • 4 tofu puffs, cut on the diagonal
  • 2 tbsp tamarind paste
  • 1 pink snapper head, including the shoulder and wings
  • Vegetable oil, for deep-frying 
  • ½ eggplant, peeled and thickly sliced
  • 6 green beans, trimmed and cut into 6 cm lengths
  • 250 ml (1 cup) coconut milk 
  • Pinch of salt and sugar
  • handful Vietnamese mint
  • torch ginger flower, petals picked and cut into julienne


Curry base

  • 1 tbsp belachan (shrimp paste)
  • 1 brown onion, roughly chopped
  • 3 cm piece ginger
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, white part finely sliced, green ends bruised
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander 
  • 1 tbsp ground cumin 
  • ½ tbsp ground turmeric 
  • 2 tbsp chilli powder
  • 2 tbsp sweet paprika
  • 80 ml  ( cup) vegetable oil
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 5 star anise
  • 6 makrut
  • lime leaves, bruised

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.


For the curry base, place a wok over medium-high heat. Add the belachan and dry fry for a few minutes or until slightly charred. Place in a blender with the onion, ginger and sliced lemongrass and blend into a fine paste.

Place the wok over medium heat. Add the ground coriander, cumin and turmeric and cook, stirring continuously for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant. Do not allow to burn. Remove from the wok and set aside.

Place the chilli powder and paprika in a small bowl and add enough water to make a paste. Return the wok to high heat. Add the vegetable oil and fry the chilli paprika paste for 30 seconds or until the oil turns red. Add the blended onion mixture followed by the cinnamon, star anise, toasted spices and crushed makrut lime leaves. Reduce the heat to medium and fry for 10 minutes or until very fragrant and the oil starts separating from the solids. Stir the paste occasionally to prevent the bottom catching and burning- you don’t want to rush this process because it defines the taste of the curry.

When the oil has started to separate from the paste, add the stock or water, then add the bruised lemongrass ends, galangal, tomato, okra and tofu puffs. Add a little more stock or water if the curry is too dry. Increase the heat to high and add the tamarind paste. Bring back to the boil before adding the fish head, making sure it is completely submerged in the liquid. Cover the wok with a lid and reduce the heat to low to maintain a gentle boil. Cook for 10-15 minutes.

While the fish head is cooking, heat the oil for deep-frying in a large saucepan or deep-fryer to 180°C. Deep-fry the eggplant for 1 minute or until golden, then drain on paper towel. Add the beans and fry for 20 seconds. Drain on paper towel.

After about 15 minutes of cooking, add the eggplant and beans. Add the coconut milk and mix in gently to avoid breaking the fish. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then season with salt and sugar. Remove the wok from the heat. Remove the whole spices and rest the curry for a couple of minutes - resting allows the chilli oil to surface giving better eye appeal to the curry. Serve garnished with Vietnamese mint and torch ginger flower.


Photography by Sharyn Cairns. Styling by Lee Blaylock. Food preparation by Rachel Lane. Creative concept by Belinda So.

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