Curry Fish Head: This iconic Singaporean & Malaysian favourite combines the rich spices of South India, the tangy flavour of tamarind and the creamy goodness of coconut milk with deliciously tender fish head, a Chinese delicacy.
In the early days, fishmongers used to discard the fish heads or sell them cheap as not many people appreciated fish heads. Until Curry Fish Head recipe was invented in the 1950s (at least by most accounts). The popularity of this dish which married South Indian culinary influences with Chinese tastes spread like wildfire. Before long, an influx of Curry Fish Head restaurants had sprang up along Race Course Road (including Our Makan Shop and Muthu’s Curry Restaurant, just to name a few).
Fish head curry was one of my father’s favourite dish, so my mother learnt how to cook this curry at home as well. Each time she cooked his favourite curry fish head, my father would always have 2 plates of plain rice flooded with curry gravy. After finishing the rice, he would slurp up the curry, licking the plate clean of every last drop. He enjoyed this dish best eating with his hands, as our Indian friends do. He would always go first for the tender fleshy cheeks, before scooping out the eyes which were a great treat for him.
At that time, Muthu’s Curry had (and still has) one of the best curry fish head in Singapore, so among my generation, Fish Head Curry became synonymous with Muthu’s Curry. Of course nowadays you can find Fish Head Curry being sold at many local eateries including food courts and zi char stalls, but Muthu’s Curry has managed to maintain its lead, going on to win a number of accolades for its signature dish.
As with most local cuisine, each ethnic groups in Singapore has their own unique style of cooking this appetising curry fish head – Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Peranakan. Some prefer the curry with the sourish taste of tamarind, some prefer to make it creamy by adding coconut milk, and some (myself included) like a bit of both.
Whatever style you choose, a good choice of fish head is Emperor Red Snapper, because the meat does not disintegrate easily during the cooking process. See our posts Every Foodie’s MUST-HAVE Guide to 10 Common Local Fish and The 10 Things You MUST Know About Choosing the Freshest Fish to learn how to identify and select Emperor Red Snapper. If you prefer, you can replace the Fish Head with Fish Cutlet or Fish Tail as well. If you are not a fish lover, why not try our Chicken Curry recipe instead?
Hope you enjoy this recipe, and please leave me a comment below if you have any questions, suggestions or feedback for me!
Suggested Modifications for Special Diets
- Egg-Free: No modifications needed.
- Gluten-Free: No modifications needed.
- Nut-Free: No modifications needed.
- Shellfish-Free: No modifications needed.
Curry Fish Head
- 700-800 gm Fish Head (Emperor Red Snapper)
- 1/4 tsp Salt to rub over the fish head
- 1.5-2 tsp Salt
- 1 big Eggplant (Brinjal / Aubergine)
- 3 Tomatoes
- 10-12 Okra (Lady's Fingers)
- 3 Stalks Curry Leaves
- 1 Tbsp Tamarind Pulp
- 100 ml Water to mix with Tamarind Pulp
- 8 Tbsp Oil
- 1.2 Litre Water
- 1 Tbsp Sugar
- 200 ml Coconut Cream (Santan)
Ingredients for Curry Paste
- 2 Tbsp Coriander Powder
- 2 Tbsp Red Chilli Powder
- 2 Tbsp Fish Curry Powder
- 1 Tbsp Cumin Powder
- 50 ml Water to mix with all the spices
Ingredients for Blending
- 8-10 Shallots
- 1 Big Red Onion
- 5 Cloves Garlic
- 1 Thumb size Fresh Tumeric
- 1/2 Thumb-size Ginger
PREPARATION METHOD FOR FISH HEAD CURRY (30 MIN)
Wash the fish head and remove all the scales if any. Pat dry and rub 1/4 tsp salt all over the fish head and set aside for later use.
Remove the skin from the shallots, onion, garlic, turmeric and ginger. Then cut the turmeric, ginger and big onion into small chunks.
Place the shallots, onion, garlic, turmeric and ginger into a blender and blend until it forms a smooth paste. Transfer to a bowl.
In a separate bowl, add all the curry paste ingredients together. Add 50 ml of water and mix until a smooth paste is formed.
Combine the onion mixture and the curry paste mixture and mix until well incorporated and set aside for later use.
Wash the eggplant, tomatoes and okras ( lady's fingers). Remove the stalk of the egg plants and quarter and cut into 5 cm long. Cut the tomatoes into wedges.
Rinse the stalks of curry leaves then glide your fingers along the stalk to separate the leaves from the stalk. Set aside the leaves for later use and discard the stalks.
Place 1 Tbsp of tamarind pulp into a bowl and add 100 ml of water. Use your fingers to rub the tamarind until all the seeds come out clean. Strain the tamarind juice into a bowl and set aside for later use. Discard the seeds.
COOKING METHOD FOR FISH HEAD CURRY (30 MIN)
In a wok, heat up 8 Tbsp of oil over medium heat. Next add in all the blended curry paste to fry for about 10-15 minutes until the aromatic and the oil surfaces. Keep stirring constantly to prevent the paste from getting burnt. (If it gets too dry, lower the heat and add some tamarind juice to it).
Next add in 1.2 litre of water, curry leaves, salt, sugar and the rest of the tamarind juice. Turn the heat to high and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, add in the eggplant and cook for about 5 mins until soft. Then add in the okra, and tomatoes. ( cook egg plants first as they take a longer time to soften ).
Add in the fish head with the cheeks side up and continue to cook for about 10-15 mins.
Lastly add in the 200 ml of coconut milk to the curry and mix well. Cook for another 5 mins. Turn off the heat and let the fish head sit in the gravy for a while. (More water and salt can be added if you prefer the gravy to be more diluted and more salty)
Transfer the curry into a serving bowl, and serve with a plate of steaming hot rice.
- [Key Tip!] Not all kinds of fish heads are suitable for cooking curry fish head. Some will disintegrate easily and others may be too tough and full of small bones.
- Emperor Red Snapper is one of the best fish for curry fish head because the meat does not disintegrate when cooking and the meat is fine and tender and absorb the flavours of the curry gravy readily. See our previous blog post for the colloquial names for this fish, and how to differentiate it from Crimson and Golden Snappers.
- [Key Tip!] Make sure that all the fish scales are removed as having unremoved scales on the fish head will really ruin the dish. Your fishmonger will help you scale the fish, but don't assume that it will be completely clean. Always check and if need be, remove any remnant scales yourself when you get home. Read our article: 6 Simple Steps to Scale and Clean Fish Like A Pro for how to scale the fish head properly.
- When frying the curry paste, turn the heat to low to prevent it from getting burnt and keep stirring to prevent it from sticking to the wok. Cook until the oil separates from the spices. If it is too dry, a little water can be added to it.
- Do not over-cook the fish head. After 10-15 mins, turn off the heat and let the fish head soak in the curry, so that the curry gravy will be more flavourful.
- Only add in the coconut cream in the last 5 minutes and do not boil it vigorously, otherwise it will curdle.
- [Key Tip!] Do not cut the lady's fingers, otherwise the pot of curry will turn rather slimy.
- You can also add in other vegetables like long beans, carrots, red chillies and green chillies.
- If you are not a fish head lover, you can substitute it with fish cutlets like mackerel, sea beam (Ang Ko Li) or salmon ( if it's your preference).