Fish head curry became a popular dish in Malaysia and Singapore around the second half of the 20th century. With South Indian origins, the various ethnic groups of the Malay Peninsula have added their own accents to the dish, and recipes vary from place to place, group to group, family to family and shop to shop. No two recipes are ever the same. My Aunty Chin makes a great fish head curry and this is an adaptation of her recipe; with powerful sweet and sour Nyonya flavours. Every time a bowl of fish head curry comes to the table, I’m reminded of a childhood full of adults goading us kids to eat an eye, closely followed by our groans of disgust when one of the adults finally let us off the hook and ate it themselves. I’m still not keen on it. Go for the cheek instead, that’s where the best meat is.
- 1.5 kg large fish head (anterior cut) (see Note) or 800 g fish fillets (use a large white fish such as snapper or grouper)
- 100 g tamarind concentrate (block form) (see Note) or 2 tbsp tamarind purée
- 2 tbsp peanut or vegetable oil
- 1 cup loosely packed curry leaves
- 250 g okra, stalks trimmed
- ½ whole pineapple, peeled, cored, cut into 2 cm cubes
- 2 tomatoes, cored, quartered
- 200 ml coconut cream
- 1 tsp caster sugar
- 1 lime, halved
- steamed rice and coriander leaves, to serve
Fish curry powder
- 1½ tbsp ground coriander
- 1 tbsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp chilli powder
- 1 tsp ground turmeric
- ½ tsp white pepper
Rempah (spice paste)
- 3 large onions, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves
- 5 red bird's-eye chillies, split lengthwise, seeded
- 1 tbsp grated ginger
- 1 tbsp shrimp paste (belachan) (see Note) or 2 tbsp fish sauce
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.
Soaking time 15 minutes
Resting time 20 minutes
For the fish curry powder, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
For the rempah, process all the ingredients together in a food processor or blender to a smooth paste, adding a little water as necessary for the processor/blender to work.If using fish head, wash well to remove any traces of blood and pat dry. Rub fish head or fillets with 1 tbsp fish curry powder and set aside. Place tamarind in a heatproof bowl and pour over 500 ml hot water. Allow to steep for 15 minutes, then squeeze out and reserve liquid from tamarind. (If using tamarind purée without the seeds, just stir it through the water until dissolved.)
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a wok and sear the fish head on both sides until browned, then remove and set aside. Add the rempah and remaining curry powder to the wok and fry for about 5 minutes until the oil separates from the paste, then stir through curry leaves.
Add okra to the wok and fry for 2 minutes, then add pineapple and tomatoes, and cook for 3 minutes. Add coconut cream, tamarind liquid, ¼ tsp salt and sugar, and bring to the boil. Add fish head, cover with the sauce and add some water if there is not enough liquid. Bring to the boil again, then turn off heat and cover wok. Allow fish to stand, turning halfway, for 20 minutes to cook through, then squeeze over lime juice. Stir gently to combine and serve with rice and coriander.
• An anterior cut fish head is one cut in a straight line behind the pectoral fins, perpendicular to the spine. This leaves much of the first fillets of the fish attached to the head and provides plenty of delicious meat.
• Tamarind concentrate (block form) and shrimp paste (belachan) are available from Asian food shops.
Photography Armelle Habib