Fish head curry
Fish head curry is a spicy, curried dish unique to Singapore. Blending the spices of a typical South Indian fish curry with the fish head, the dish is a delicacy among the Chinese.1
Fish head curry was first sold from a stall at Sophia Road in 1949.2 It was the brainchild of Indian immigrant, M. J. Gomez, even though the head of the fish was not particularly an Indian delicacy.3 Gomez prepared the dish to please his Chinese customers, based on his understanding that fish head was a favourite among the Chinese.4 Since then, fish head curry has become a hit in Singapore and across the Causeway.5
The popularity of fish head curry drew enterprising Chinese chefs to experiment with the dish. One such pioneering chef was Hoong Ah Kong, who modified the Indian recipe at his first restaurant, Chin Wah Heng, in 1951. His version was made with a moderation of spices and by steaming the fish head first.6
Fish head curry became so popular among the different ethnic communities in Singapore that stalls started advertising their own “Gomez fish head curry” or “original Gomez curry” in the 1970s and 1980s.7
The curry used in Gomez’s dish is based on the traditional South Indian fish curry recipe from the southwestern Indian state of Kerala.8 The curry is a thick paste of rich spices coating the fish pieces.9 In Kerala, however, coconut milk is added to the gravy.10
Fish head curry is served in both Indian and Chinese restaurants.11 In some Indian restaurants, fresh banana leaves are laid before the diners and rice is scooped onto them. The curry is then poured over the rice. Usually, the diners are also served papadam (crackers) to complement the main course. The meal is often eaten with other side dishes as well.12
Typically, the flesh around the cheeks would be the first part of the fish head consumed. Other fleshy parts are then removed, exposing the skull. The final and best part of this gastronomic ritual is the scooping of the eyes.13 The whole fish is usually consumed, from the meat, cheeks, eyeballs and lips.14
Little India has a “Curry Row” along Race Course Road where several restaurants offer fish head curry, including Muthu’s Curry Restaurant.15
Renuka M. & Rakunathan Narayanan
1. Tony Khoo and Leslie Tay, The Singapore Heritage Cookbook: Past, Present, Future (Singapore: Food2Print Asia, 2015), 199. (Call no. RSING 641.595957 KHO)
2. Margaret Chan, “Fish-Head Curry on a Platter,” Straits Times, 2 November 1986, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Khoo and Tay, Singapore Heritage Cookbook Future, 199.
3. James P. Sterba, “Singapore Special: Fish Head Curry,” New York Times, 28 March 1979; Khoo and Tay, Singapore Heritage Cookbook Future, 199; N. Balakrishnan, “Singapore Fish Head Curry… Is This Our National Dish?” Singapore Monitor, 5 January 1983, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Khoo and Tay, Singapore Heritage Cookbook Future, 199.
5. Arthur J. Pais, “Fish Head Curry Travels to Boston from Thanjavur via Kuala Lumpur,” Rediff.com, 19 July 1999.
6. Khoo and Tay, Singapore Heritage Cookbook Future, 199–200.
7. Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled: Decoding 25 Favourite Dishes (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2015), 69 (Call no. RSING 641.595957 SIN); “Page 13 Advertisements Column 2: A New Experience in Fish Head Curry,” Straits Times, 8 September, 1976, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled, 69.
9. Violet Oon, “Fish Head Curry a La Special,” New Nation, 8 November 1974, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Temasek Polytechnic, Singapore Hawker Classics Unveiled, 70.
11. Devagi Sanmugam, Banana Leaf Temptations (Singapore: VJ Times, 1997), 10. (Call no. RSING 641.5948 SAN)
12. “The Banana Leaf ‘Kick’ That Spells ‘Fireworks’,” Straits Times, 11 July 1982, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Rosalind Mowe, ed., Southeast Asian Specialties: A Culinary Journey Through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Culinaria: Konemann, 1999), 188. (Call no. RSING 641.5959 SOU)
14. Naleeza Ebrahim and Yaw Yan Yee, Not Just a Good Food Guide (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2006), 177. (Call no. RSING 647.955957 NAL)
15. “Singapore: Celebrating Millenium Mania and Lunar New Year,” CEO Traveller (Winter 1999–2000); Wong Ah Yoke, “Take It Raw or Fight It Out with the Bones,” Straits Times, 10 April 1998, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
Christopher Tan and Amy Van, Chinese Heritage Cooking (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2012). (Call no. RSING 641.595957 TAN)
Chua Beng Huat, Life Is Not Complete without Shopping: Consumption Culture in Singapore (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003). (Call no. RSING 306.3095957 CHU)
Devagi Sanmugam and Shanmugam Kasinathan, Indian Heritage Cooking (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2011). (Call no. RSING 641.595957 DEV)
Margaret Chan, “Singapore Melting Pot,” Straits Times, 7 August 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
Wendy Hutton, “Kerala-Style Food…,” New Nation, 14 April 1973, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
Wendy Hutton, Singapore Food (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Cuisine, 2007). (Call no.: RSING 641.595957 HUT)
The information in this article is valid as at October 2020 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Dinners and dining--Singapore