Look away if you’re squeamish about heads, eyes and odd food bits …
Welcome to the delicious world of the tender, flakey flesh of a gorgeous fish head.
Let’s pause for a second and consider this – What do you think happens to the heads of the filleted fish in your supermarket aisles?
Fish heads have long been a delicacy in this part of the world – my world. Also, nose to tail eating has always been part of Asian culture. Only the freshest fish is used for this dish as it makes all the difference. To purchase one, look for a fish with clear eyes, blood-red gills and with abdomen that isn’t distended. Fish head meat from the collar, cheek and around the eyes are especially delicate and extremely delicious. I grew up eating huge fish heads whenever my family went out for a Fish Head Curry meal in Race Course Road once a year. When visitors from overseas come to Singapore, they’re often taken to fish head curry restaurants as it’s an iconic Singaporean dish.
As a kid, I use to slowly savour eating this dish as the fish meat ‘hides’ in the nooks and crannies of the huge head. My favourite part was eating the whole fish eye and the soft, gelatinous meat behind the eye! There are very few people I know who savour the eye meat as much as I. Once, we’d brought my father-in-law out for a fish head curry meal for his birthday. No one wanted to eat the fish head and so when I unabashedly reached for it, dug out and popped the whole eyeball in my mouth… my in-laws watched in amusement/disgust/horror!
The beauty of this curry is that it can be made with any cut of fish. So, if you’re squeamish about the fish head, then you can make this dish with any bone-in fish. But I’ll urge you to reconsider…
With the special ‘powers’ of a cast iron pot, like the Le Creuset Marmite Pot I’ve used, this dish is such a stunner from start to finish! To begin, I heat up a completely dry, 26-cm marmite pot with the coconut oil. Once it reaches the correct temperature after about 10 minutes on medium-flame, I add the mustard seeds. Once the mustard seeds pop , I add the fenugreek and curry leaves and pan-fry with a wooden spatula for a few seconds. Pan-frying the whole spices releases their aroma into the oil which then perfumes the entire dish. Then, I fry the roughly ground shallots with a pinch of salt until they brown evenly, about 5-8 minutes. The satin black enamel coating on the inside of the pot allows for the even browning of the shallots – a crucial step in ensuring a flavourful curry as browning releases the natural sweetness and flavours in shallots through maillard reaction. As soon as the shallots turn golden brown, add the ground spice paste and cook till it turns a shade darker, becomes a thicker mixture and the spice-coloured oil separates from it. Do not rush this step as you will be able to taste the raw spices in the gravy at the end if you do not cook the masala paste completely . Many Indian restaurants I’ve eaten at recently do not cook out the spice pastes long enough – another reason for you to recreate this dish at home!
The satin black enamel on the inside of the pot works exceptionally well for cooking out curry pastes till the oil separates. I made this dish twice in two other cookware and I found that I needed to use more oil on both occasions to ensure that the spice paste does not stick to the base of the pot or burn. Once the spice paste is cooked, add the tamarind water and cook the gravy till red oil patches form on the surface. Then, reduce the flame to medium-low, add thinned out coconut milk and cook covered for 5 minutes. Finally, gently slide in the marinated fish head (the best way is to place the fish head on a plate and slide it in gently into the gravy) and cook covered on low for about 20 minutes. Using a fish spatula and wooden spatula, gingerly flip the fish head and continue cooking on low for another 5-8 minutes. Then, switch off the flame and leave the fish to cook in the residual heat of the pot so that the fish isn’t overcooked. Le Creuset cast iron pots retain heat exceptionally well and so cooking the fish this way keeps the flesh really soft and delicious. Using fish head imbues the curry with a gelatinous texture that is a result of slow-cooking the fish bones – Another reason to make this curry using fish head! – I hope you catch my drift 😉
The heat retention in the Marmite cast iron pot cooks the fish head slowly and evenly and what I’ve observed is that the fish meat remains intact with the bone rather then becoming shredded after vigorous boiling. Just before serving, add more coconut milk if you prefer a richer, more coconut-based Nonya type of curry and stir gently. At this point, it tastes like a good South Indian Fish Curry – piquant (from the tamarind, slightly sweet (from the thin coconut milk and fish) and spicy (from the red chilli powder and green chillies). However, with the addition of an extra cup of coconut milk, the dish is transformed to a mildly spicy and luxuriously silky dish. It’s entirely up to you which type of curry you prefer… they both taste delicious and in my opinion, far superior than the restaurant versions. The curry gets an extra boost of flavour from the generous amount of garlic and shallots – something many restaurants skip in favour of MSG. I’ve nothing against MSG but I’m not for it being used as a replacement for more ingredients being used.
For the fish: I bought a 1 kilogram red snapper head from my fishmonger the morning I cooked this dish. Any firm fleshed fish would be nice in this curry but buy only the freshest fish at your market and get your fishmonger to do all the dirty work for you! Get him/her to make an incision only at the belly and lower jaw such that the fish remains as intact as possible. Ask them to remove all the scales, gills, guts and fins. At home, thoroughly rinse your fish to remove any remaining scales and make sure all the guts have been removed. Set aside in your refrigerator until you’re ready to use it. Handle the fish head carefully as you want to keep its shape as intact as possible. I kept the fish head whole as I find it easier to flip it over and I’ve found that this also means almost no bone bits are left swimming in your curry. The whole fish head also looks better for presentation , if you’re serving it at a family gathering. Also, only marinate your fish about 30 minutes before you start cooking as fresh fish does not require long marination time. I like to taste the natural sweetness of fish in this dish and not have the spices overwhelm the beauty of fresh fish.
For the coconut milk: Use any good quality coconut milk that has little or no additives and flavourings. Many brands add pandan or jasmine flavours, so be wary.
For the tamarind paste : I prefer Lion brand Seedless Tamarind paste (available at most Indian grocers) to the Orchid brand tamarind found in most supermarkets. The lovely fruity and floral notes of Lion brand tamarind really highlights fresh fish beautifully. However, if you’re unable to find it, any good quality tamarind should suffice.
I’ve used both green chillies and red chilli powder in the curry for two different kinds of heat in the curry. Do not be alarmed by the huge amount- the strong flavours tone down after cooking and the addition of coconut milk. I also ground the tomatoes, ginger, garlic and spice powders together to make things easier and to reduce cooking time… so I hope you get to try this spectacular one-pot dish with your family soon. Another plus – you can serve this curry in the same pot it’s cooked in because the Le Creuset Marmite’s just lovely. Mine is a Sugar Pink, 26cm, Le Creuset Marmite.
This ‘Spicy Fish Head Curry’ is perfect with plain white rice, crusty bread and tastes even better the next day with thosai- a perfect South Indian pairing !
I cannot wait for you to try this stunning fish curry. Do tag your Spicy Fish Head creations with #monsoontable on Instagram and Facebook, if you do post pictures of them.
Also, how amazing do the ingredients and spices for this dish look in this shot below?
Spicy Fish Head Curry
Recipe by: Vasun, http://www.cupcakesncurries.com
- 800 grams – 1 kg red snapper fish head, gills and fins removed + scaled + thoroughly cleaned
- a large handful of turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon chilli powder
- about 2 teaspoons sea salt
For Spice Paste
- 1 teaspoon cumin powder
- 2 teaspoons coriander powder
- 2-3 tablespoons chilli powder
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1.5 inches ginger (about 30 grams)
- 6 whole garlic cloves , peeled (about 45-50 grams)
- 3-4 green chillies (about 25 grams)
- 2 medium tomatoes (about 230 grams), quartered
- 100 grams whole shallots , peeled, thinly sliced
- 1/3 cup cold-pressed coconut oil
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon fenugreek seeds
- 2 springs of curry leaves , leaves removed, rinsed and dried
- 25 grams deseeded tamarind paste , soaked in 0.5 cup hot water, strained
- 2 cups thin coconut milk – 1 cup coconut milk mixed with 1 cup water
- 5 small whole ladies fingers, flesh pierced with knife
- 1 long brinjal, halved lengthwise and cut into 2 inch logs
- 1 cup coconut milk
- sea salt, to taste
- Garnish: Chopped coriander leaves
- Gently rub fish all over (especially inside stomach and head) with all marination ingredients and set aside for about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, in a food processor, blend all ingredients till very smooth and set aside. Do not add any water.
- Thinly slice shallots or pulse (not blend) them 2-3 times till roughly chopped in a food processor. The shallots should not be watery.
- In a 26-cm Le Creuset Marmite pot or any large cast iron pot, add coconut oil and heat till hot, over medium flame.
- Add mustard seeds and wait to hear them pop. Then immediately add fenugreek seeds and curry leaves. Using a wooden spatula, fry till fragrant, about 10 seconds.
- Add all sliced shallots with a pinch of salt and fry till onions are golden brown.
- Now add blended spice paste and keep tossing the paste and cooking it until oil separates and the paste is thicker and slightly darker.
- Add tamarind water, cover the pot and cook until red oil patches form on the surface of the mixture. About 2-3 minutes.
- Turn heat down to low flame. Add thin coconut milk. Cover pot and cook till oil separates again. Check for seasoning.
- Gently slide in marinated fish head , add vegetables with a pinch of salt. Cover and cook on low flame for about 20 minutes.
- Remove cooked vegetables. Carefully flip fish head. Cover and cook for 5 minutes more.
- Add vegetables back into pot and add coconut milk (if adding). Gently stir gravy without breaking up fish. Cover and turn flame off. Leave to continue cooking for another 10 minutes. Check for seasoning.
- Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve.
As some of you may have noticed from my Instagram stories and posts (@vasunthara.r) , I’ve been testing a few Le Creuset pots that were given to me. I’ve recipe tested several dishes using these pots and over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some recipes with you that I think work really well with the pots. Follow me along on my Instagram for all the recipe inspirations and cooking tips I share daily about the usage of the Le Creuset cast iron pots and other stories.