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Malaysian Fish Head Curry Recipe

Why It Works

  • Making your individual curry powder lets you modify the flavour as desired.
  • Toasting the spices develops their flavors, which gently infuse the dish because it cooks.

Within the early 1900s, my paternal grandfather sailed from Tamil Nadu to then-Malaya as a 12-year-old orphan. He was part of considered one of many immigration waves from India, which principally consisted of males and boys from the southern Indian areas of Tamil Nadu and Kerala who had been introduced by British colonizers to Malaya as indentured laborers to work on rubber plantations in an abusive and exploitative system that existed alongside after which finally changed enslavement. Past my grandfather’s courageous and harsh journey, I don’t know a lot about him, although I’m informed he opened what was presumably the primary Indian restaurant within the sleepy port city of Pontian, Johor. My dad grew up consuming many meals at his father’s restaurant, which trickled right down to my very own childhood, through which there was at all times curry on our eating desk.

Severe Eats / Michelle Yip


Malaysian-style curry, usually a superb red-orange gravy with totally different greens and proteins, tends to be on the spicier facet. Essentially the most well-known model is fish head curry, which probably started as a poor man’s meal however has since risen in reputation to turn out to be one of the costly gadgets on Indian restaurant menus. For a lot of, sharing a decadent fish head curry as a part of a banana leaf–rice meal with household and buddies continues to be a particular deal with.

Image this: A big tureen crammed with steaming curry is dropped at the desk, through which a number of giant fish heads are submerged, surrounded by bobbing greens. Fashionable fish varieties in eating places are whitefish like snapper and seabass, although I personally desire oily fish like giant mackerel and salmon, as they arise properly to the spice of the curry sauce. Diners spoon the curry sauce onto their plates of rice, and communally choose on the fish heads over the course of the meal. Many will name dibs on their favourite elements: the little scallops of cheek meat, the tender flesh within the crevices of the collar, the gooey eyeballs saturated with spice. When the fish heads are seemingly picked clear, some of us will place what stays of the cranium on their plate, and tunnel by means of each hole and crevice, triumphant every time they uncover a chunk of flesh that another person missed. It’s a feast, one greatest loved with a big group of family members on a weekend afternoon.

Severe Eats / Michelle Yip


Whereas the curry sauce is what contributes the majority of the flavour, most eating places don’t make their very own spice mix for the curry; many as a substitute choose to make use of ready-made packets of floor spices labeled “fish curry powder,” or order their very own customized mixes to be floor at native spice mills. Whereas using pre-ground spice mixes is handy, they have a tendency to lean fairly closely on chile powder, which supplies the curries their vivid reddish-orange coloration. I personally love warmth, however an excessive amount of chile powder makes the curry moderately one-note. On prime of that, I desire to grind my very own spices, which, as a result of they’re recent and stronger, produce an general hotter mix with out having to go heavy on the chile powder. Whereas this does lead to a curry with a much less vibrant coloration, it makes for extra balanced flavors throughout, which is a tradeoff I am completely happy to make.

A method typically used when getting ready Malaysian curries—dubbed the “reverse tadka” by Severe Eats contributor Nik Sharma—is to toast a collection of spices at first of the cooking course of. These spices stay complete, separate from those which might be floor right into a powder. For fish curries, the combination often comprises mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, and generally nigella seeds. It is a mixture that will also be purchased ready-made at outlets, typically referred to as “panch phoron.”

Severe Eats / Michelle Yip


It is a approach I exploit on this recipe, through which eggplant are first fried in oil till golden, then the entire spices are bloomed within the sizzling oil earlier than diced onion and a paste of garlic and ginger and fried till candy and aromatic. The curry is constructed on prime of that with tomato, tamarind, coconut milk, curry leaves, and a do-it-yourself mixture of floor spices. After that the fish heads go in with okra and the fried eggplant and simmered till the fish is cooked and the greens are tender.

The delicate textures of the fish and greens married with the boldness of the curry and the occasional crunch of complete spice make for a sensorial, lick-your-fingers meal that you simply received’t quickly neglect.

Severe Eats / Michelle Yip


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