Shame on me. I just realised how famous Singapore’s Fish Head Curry really is. It’s so famous around the world that it even represented Singapore on MSN’s list of 25 things to eat before you die, taking its place along side the likes of Sushi at Tsukiji market, Florentine steak in Italy and Yang Cheng Lake Hairy Crab. Yet, I didn’t even include it in my book, “The End of Char Kway Teow“!
Ok, maybe you might wonder if Fish Head Curry is indeed a Singaporean invention. It is said that Fish Head Curry is not found in India and that it was resulted as a fusion between the Chinese love for Fish Head and an Indian Curry King’s incredible Fish Curry. The Malaysians of course will dispute that and claim that it is yet another dish that they invented that Singapore had stolen.
Hey I don’t mind if they can actually produce some evidence to stake their claims. At least that way, people can evaluate the evidence and decide whether their claims can be substantiated. But no, the way they claim that they have actually invented Fish Head Curry is to make broad sweeping statements like:
“I must say that Malaysians started eating fish head curry long before Singaporeans did. Only we were enjoying it quietly under big banyan trees by the roadside.”
“The Singaporeans may also boast their own concoctions with similar flavours. If that’s the case, let them try our glorious Malacca Nyonya fish head curry which is 110% Malaysian. Nyonya dishes are uniquely Malaccan and any Nyonya dish found anywhere else is just fake.”
Now , who’s going to take that seriously? Quietly enjoying Fish Head Curry under big banyan trees? Only Malaccan Nonyas are true Nonyas? What do the Penang, Indonesian and Singaporean Nonyas say to that?
So what evidence have we got to stake the claim that Fish Head Curry has its roots in Singapore? Well, the truth is that the evidence on the internet is sketchy. First, there are apparently conflicting accounts of two individuals who were supposed to have invented the dish. The first is attributed to Gomez who used to sell his curry in the Selegie area in the 50’s (1) and the second is Muthu’s curry who started his stall in 1969. The premise is the same. Both were Indian men who capitalized on the Chinese fondness for Fish Head to create a dish based on Indian Fish Curry.
Before I go on, let me just tell you that I myself had doubts at first as to whether this dish is even Singaporean in origin. The doubt arose because I managed to find a youtube video of Anthony Bourdain eating Fish Head Curry in Kerala. So even though there have been claims that Fish Head Curry is unheard of in India, it would seem that the author might have been mistaken. How believable is it that the dish was invented in Singapore first and found its way back to Mother India. Mother give birth to son, not the other way round, no?
So now we have two theories of its Singapore origins. Since the Gomez story is older than Muthu’s story, all we need to do is to find some evidence that indeed this Gomez curry was selling Fish Head Curry in the 50’s and we would have clinched it. Fortunately, the evidence is not difficult to obtain since there are still people in Singapore who remember the 50’s quite clearly.
One such person is Mr Alex Giam, 78 who tells us his personal memories of Mr Gomez:
“……he set up stall over 60 years ago, and people would HAVE to go back at least once or twice a week. It was a shack or a shed in the Jewish neighbourhood near Sophia Road area, where if you go now, and the buildings still stand, you will see some Jewish names on the buildings and the Star of David on the buildings. Even the Jewish people loved Gomez curry and the star dish was not the fish head, Gomez was so so good with everything – chicken korma, diced chicken, mutton. Seating was either the wooden benches on rickety wooden tables under a tarpaulin cover or you just squat along the longkang there. Everyone ate with their hands, even the lawyers and the millionaires and the Chinese, everyone ate there, regardless of race, language or religion. You can also tarpau, and the food was wrapped in leaves and newspaper. (This was in the old colonial days, no NEA). It was not about the fish head only, the korma kuah was the best. My parents swear he probably added a banned substance LOL! Thereafter, don’t know when, fish head was added to the menu. All the Jews left SG when the State of Israel was established ( and somehow, all the Arabs left SG too). Anyway, Old Boy Gomez retired and went back to India and then there were a few Gomez’s stalls, run by his nephews. One moved to Selegie house, now torn down, and another moved to Outram Park, now torn down. “Standard dropped”, said my parents, when Old Gomez went back, even though the new generation added more dishes to the repertoire, like crabs and yellow rice. In the original Gomez stall, don’t even have banana-leaf. Just good old Indian curries and his special “opium”! “Nowadays, don’t have the old time taste.”
Source: Ms Giam Lay Hoon, daughter, relating the story told by her father.
And here is the last little surprise which explains why Anthony Bourdain managed to eat Fish Head Curry in Kerala. According to Mr Giam, Gomez returned to Kerala after making his money and probably started selling Fish Head Curry there!
Here’s the reason why I find this to be credible. It is evident that the dish is not readily available throughout India. Such that Chennai Chef from Gayatri restaurant said he had never seen Fish Head Curry in Chennai. (Chennai is on the East coast of South India, Kerala is on the West) That means that the dish is probably a recent introduction to Kerala, since popular dishes usually would migrate over time. Gomez, being an Indian, has a Portugese surname. That means that he was probably Catholic and we know that Kerala has a large population of Catholics because that was where Vasco de Gama landed in 1498.
The fact that Gomez returned home to Kerala is not surprising as I can personally recall two Indian Hawkers who are still holding Indian passports even though they have been living in Singapore for over 30 years! One is the uncle from Riyadh Muslim Food and the other, who used to sell Mutton Soup in Commonwealth Crescent. He had recently closed shop and returned home to India after living in Singapore for over 30 years! So the theory that Gomez went back to Kerala and introduced Fish Head Curry there is quite plausible.
So, until I can find some evidence that Fish Head Curry was eaten in Malaysia prior to the 1950’s, I am going to stick with the theory that it was indeed Mr Gomez who invented it at his stall along Mount Sophia.
OK, now that I have gotten that out of my system, let’s talk about the Fish Head Curry!
The 30 plus year old stall in Joo Chiat actually started off selling Bak Kut Teh. In fact, the owner told me that he started selling Bak Kut Teh in 1973 after he learnt the ropes by working in the famous Bak Kut Teh stall in River Valley Road who was run by the father of the founder of Ng Ah Sio Bak Kut Teh in Rangoon Road. The stall still has a whole display of teapots but people nowadays flock there for the Curry Fish Head and Steamed fish instead.
The reason he introduced Curry Fish Head in 1998 was because of the Nipah Virus outbreak in Malaysia resulting in a ban on Malaysian pork which is still enforced till this day. (Actually why hasn’t the AVA lifted the ban?) Along with Curry Fish Head also came Steamed Fish which, being Teochew, was a most logical thing to introduce. At first his Curry Fish Head was really CMI (cannot make it), but he persisted and very soon came up with his very own Nonya inspired version of the dish.
What makes his Curry Fish Head special is the fact that he steams the Fish Head, brinjal and okra first and then pours the freshly made curry gravy over it. This results in a fish head that is not over cooked. The flesh is still tender and moist and the bones easily dislocates and so you can get to the wonderfully slurpilicious jelly bits. There is no doubt that the fish is fresh. Every morning, the boss will scour a few markets around the Eastern part of Singapore to look for Ang Goli (Gold banded Snapper) heads. He does that because the demand for Ang Goli heads is so high, there is never enough heads in one market alone!
So customers are assured of fish heads that are extremely fresh. He steams it till it is just tender and then pours a tangy, fragrant fish curry over it. The flesh of the fish thus remains tender and moist and never gets overcooked. The curry gravy is very well balanced. Not too spicy or over powering with just the right amount of tang to get those salivery glands going. Cactuskit claims that he can eat this every week! 4.5/5
If you prefer something that more Cheng (lighter and less oily), then the steamed fish here is a good bet. We ordered the Ang Chor (Golden Snapper) because we didn’t realize that he actually sells the prized threadfin tail here as well. The fish was perfectly steamed and the sauce is classically Teochew. No complaints. Very healthy and shiok in a healthy sort of way. 4.5/5
The main stars of Lau Hock Guan Kee have already been covered. Now we move onto the supporting actors. The Pork Ribs with Bittergourd and Black Bean sauce is one of those salty dishes that goes very well with rice. Not outstanding, but tasty nonetheless. 4/5
Same with the Claypot Chicken in Sesame oil. It was nice, the chicken was tender but just lacks that extra ommmphh to make it memorable. 4/5
So are you convinced that Fish Head Curry is a Singapore dish? Actually, and more importantly, is the Fish Head Curry in Malaysia better than Singapore’s? Who do you think serves the best Fish Head Curry now?
As far as Nonya style Fish Head Curry goes, this is one of the best places where you can enjoy it, especially if you like your fish head to not be overcooked. While you are there, the other dishes you might want to try is the chopped fish head with bittergourd and black bean. Sounds pretty good to me.
1. Hot and Robust curries carry a famous name. Wendy Hutton, Straits Times Annual 1974, Pg 86
Lau Hock Guan Kee Bak Kut Teh