There are typically two versions of the fish head curry dish in Singapore – the Chinese style and the Indian style. The Chinese style is milder, sweeter and has a richer flavor since coconut milk is used in the recipe. Canned pineapple slices are also added for sweetness.
The Indian curry version is thicker in consistency, spicy and fiery and has a sour tang to it. Assam (tamarind) paste is used to give it the sour flavor. At home, we sometimes add 2 small green mangoes, halved and with skin unpeeled, to enhance the piquant flavor of the curry.
True connoisseurs of curry fish head relish the gelatinous parts of the fish head, including the eye sockets, fish lips and areas around the jaw bone. I love the gelatinous parts of the fish but have not yet managed to bring myself to eat the fish eye. Fiona’s father loves it though, so no part of the head goes to waste at our home!
Red snapper fish head is an excellent choice for this dish. The flesh is firm and white and has lots of prized gelatinous goodness that make this dish such an exotic delicacy. Other popular fish head choices that have a lot of gelatin and firm white flesh are threadfin (ikan kurau), gold-banded jobfish (angoli) and coral trout (in picture above).
If you’re squeamish about cooking (or eating!) a fish head, you can use fish steaks instead. But if you do, you can’t honestly say that you cooked ‘fish head curry’, right?
In the recipe that follows, I use a short cut to greatly reduce preparation time. Instead of preparing the fish curry powder from scratch, I use ready packed fish curry powder off the shelf of my provision store. The brand that I use which can be found in most supermarkets or provision shops is ‘Baba’s Curry Powder’.
We do make our own fish curry powder from scratch and it is not difficult to do; it’s just that it takes time because you need to dry fry the spices till fragrant and then grind it to a fine powder. We usually prepare this in a large quantity and have the spice mixture ground in a spice mill and then packaged and sealed in air-tight packs.
The authentic way of enjoying fish head curry is to serve with steaming hot white rice, some veggies on the side and a couple of papadoms on banana leaf. And if you really want to enjoy the meal Indian style, forget the fork and spoon and use your fingers to tuck in!