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Sunday Night Special: Fish Head Curry

Mystery fish

Who says Twitter is good for nothing? Every time I get back from Singapore (ok, I've only been three times—I'm not trying to make it sound like it's a regular part of my life) I intend to try making a fish head curry only to instantly forget after quickly getting caught up in NYC again.

Thankfully, I was re-reminded by a tweet from The New York Times' Pete Wells, about the glory of fish heads. Who knows what he ended up doing with his piscine score? I knew exactly what I would do after getting my hands on a nice meaty specimen.

Where he picked up a $15 tilefish, I was limited to what the Chinese market I happened to stop by had on offer: a 99-cent-per-pound mystery breed. I have next to zero capability for discerning fish species by sight so I asked what kind of fish these came from only to hear, "fish head!" in response like I was the dumbest person on earth. (I felt the need to mention I'd recently made a fish head curry while doing a phone interview with Zak Pelaccio and when he asked what kind of fish I'd used, I lied and said snapper because I didn't want to admit my fish ignorance. He then said I should've used something oily like salmon. I'd agree with the oily, though I've never had a salmon fish head curry. Then this morning I read about the kerfuffle involving Mark Bittman using overfished red snapper and realized that I’m not only incapable of  identifying fish by sight, but the imaginary me also cooks endangered species) No need to press the matter and I'd only be out a couple bucks (plus lots of prep time) if the fish sucked.

Its face seemed a little slim and long with a little fleshy appendage that mimicked a goatee. Fish heads I usually see curried are fuller, broader. The dreaded red snapper is often recommended in recipes and I’ve also seen a call for threadfin, which I don’t think are common here.

One of these days I'll learn that no matter how many cookbooks I possess or experience I have with eating the cuisine, Malaysian-Singaporean food will never taste the same in my hands. Seriously never. I'm stymied as to what causes my food to always turn out flat and dull. I can't attribute it to lack of fresh ingredients because my Thai and Chinese food usually turns out pretty good. I'm clearly doing something wrong.

The first issue was deciding on a recipe. Every one I found was slightly different so I adapted a few based on what sounded right. Fish head curry uses dry spices, not a fresh paste or rempah, since it's a Singaporean specialty of Indian origin. Ok, there's also a Nyonya version but the curry everyone associates with Singapore is served at Indian restaurants and not so much at hawker centers.

Therefore, you need curry powder and lots of it. One thing I've discovered is that Malaysian recipes often specify the type of curry powder you need, none of that generic madras business. They seem to have two distinct blends: fish and meat. I picked up packets of each on a visit to Kuala Lumpur but that was a few years ago (perhaps the first step on my route to dull food was using old spices). It seems that main difference is that fish curry powder doesn’t contain clove, star anise, cinnamon and cardamom like the meat version.

The recipe I was following called for five tablespoons and unfortunately, my little packet only contained around four. So, I spent a bit of time grinding and making my own supplementary powder based on the recipe below, which I've left as is. Even cutting down those numbers by a third, I ended up with two whopping cups of the stuff, used an entire bottle of coriander seeds and still came up short. Grams to ounces confuse me. I had no idea what an insane quantity I was concocting until it was too late. I filled up the spice grinder with dried chiles three times and still didn't have the 50 grams per my digital scale!

You also might want to know about "curry seeds," which are called for in many recipes. From what I understand this is a blend of whole fennel seeds, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds, fenugreek and black dhal in proportions that I’m not sure about. I didn't have the dhal.

Once you have your blends ready to go and your vegetables and aromatics prepped, the rest is easy. There aren't really any shortcuts since we don't have brands like Prima Taste here that sell ready-to-use mixes that aren't half-bad (I've tried a few of them). I'm loving this fish head curry "party pack." Now, that's my kind of party. James is trying to finagle a way to get his company's Singapore office to send us a bunch of these packets. I'd be curious how the fish head curry blend tastes because…well, my rendition didn't end up impressing anyone.

Fish head curry

My pot of fish was wrong, even by looks (and I don't just mean that it's ugly anti-food porn). The consistency of the liquid should be thinner, oilier and ruddy. Mine was creamy even though I thinned it down with water. James insists the versions we had in Asia didn't contain coconut milk. I agree that they seemed sharper and soupier but every recipe I found included at least a little coconut milk. I would go easy on it.

The fish, itself was mild and inoffensive. I'm sure it could've been fresher but it was amazingly cheap. This whole dish probably cost under $8 (if you only count the portion of the $2.89 bottle of decimated coriander seeds that were actually used for this). Even at such a bargain, I'm going to lay off the Singaporean experimenting for a while because it's too much effort for lackluster pay off.  But I feel compelled to write out a recipe, anyway, because I don't think that was the problem.

1 whole fish head, about 3 pounds
1 tablespoon mixed curry seeds for fish curry (optional)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 onions thinly sliced
5 tablespoon fish curry powder made into a paste with 1 /4 to 1 /2 cup water
10 okra pods
3 tomatoes, quartered
10 chiles slit into half lengthwise
20 curry leaves
1 /2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind mixed with 1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk
5 tablespoon sunflower oil        

Fish Curry Powder
250g coriander powder
60g cumin powder
150g chilli powder
30g turmeric powder
20g black pepper powder
10g fenugreek powder

Rub fish head with salt, then wash and pat dry. (I’m just repeating what I’ve read everywhere. Rather than seasoning with salt, this step seems intended to remove “fishiness.”)

Heat oil in a wok or saucepan, add the curry seeds and stir fry over high heat for two to three minutes till the seeds pop. Add garlic, ginger, onions and stir fry till fragrant. Add the fish curry paste and brown over low heat, till oil raises to the surface. Sprinkle water if the paste begins to burn.

Add the coconut milk, tamarind juice, salt, sugar and curry leaves. Bring to a boil, stirring. Add the fish head, along with okra, tomatoes and chiles.

Simmer for 15 minutes or until fish is cooked.

Adapted from Sylvia Tan's Singapore Heritage Food and the Singapore Tourism Board

Maybe it's impossible to perfectly replicate Singaporean fish head curry in Brooklyn. I've suspected as much and Laura Shapiro's recent post, "Food Doesn't Travel" reinforces this notion.

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