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who invented fish head curry?

WELL, I PROMISED I WOULD INTRODUCE YOU TO A STRANGE AND PECULIARLY MALAYSIAN DISH CALLED FISH-HEAD CURRY -- so what's the deal? What exactly is fish-head curry, where did it come from, and where can you eat it? Answering the first question is easy: it is basically the head of an ikan merah (red snapper) stewed in a thick curry with assorted vegetables such as okra and brinjals, dished up with either rice or bread. (I got that from Wikipedia.) There are plenty of variations naturally, and it can be cooked Indian style with pungent spices, or Chinese or Nyonya style. Spices and trimmings aside, it is still basically a head of a fish in curry -- hence the name. Answering the last question posed above is easy as well: it can be found all over Malaysia, from street stalls to hotel foyers; in Chinese restaurants and Indian restaurants too; in the old days it was frequently served under the good old banyan tree. All well and good so far -- but answering the middle question, answering the second question, that is a lot trickier. A way lot trickier. That is a whole different kettle of fish. Reminiscent of the borsch battles in the republics of the former Soviet Union, ownership of the origins of fish head curry is controversial and a touchstone for national rivalries. People fight about it. It is a matter of national pride for two countries in particular -- Singapore and Malaysia. Just as Russia and The Ukraine battle it out over who invented borsch, so do Malaysia and Singapore bicker over fish head curry. (Mind you, it is nothing compared to the explosive debate (between Malaysia and Indonesia) over the origin of rendang.) To complicate the issue, individual restaurants in respective countries claim that they were the ones who first cooked it (fish head curry that is of course, not rendang). The irony is that fish head curry might have actually originated far from the Malay peninsula -- in China, for example. Wikipedia for example claims that fish head curry has both Indian and Chinese roots; interestingly, fish head curry is popular in regions where both Chinese and Indian people live. It could be the result of the culinary collision of these two great civilizations. My point in writing all this is to say, that civilization, culture and cuisine are always complicated -- just like the riddle of the chicken and the egg. Nonetheless, people like to keep on rooting for their home team, and I can understand the rivalry. The fish head controversy, always simmering away, recently (April 2008) erupted again into the national conversations, and into media sensationalism, in both Malaysia and Singapore, courtesy of a TV show. You know which one. Reporting on the aftermath from the other side of the Causeway, Ravi Veloo at Today Online wrote: "Singapore can makan any paradise -- no doubt about that. But we often get carried away and claim other people's foods as our own. I've heard us claim everything from chicken rice to roti prata as uniquely Singaporean. Which leads to things like columnist Hoo Ban Khee of the Malaysian English daily, The Star, taking the chilli out of us, making fun of a Singaporean show he caught on the Asian Food Channel, which featured fish head curry.

"'Surprise, surprise! Those Singaporeans claim they were the ones who came up with the delicacy,' he wrote in Wednesday's (April 2) edition of the paper, which claims a readership of 1 million.

"'My first impulse was to quickly alert owners of my regular Indian and Chinese restaurants that specialise in fish head curry to immediately patent the dish lest they be charged with infringing copyright,' he added, thumb-in-cheek..."

According to one Indian authority: "There are two versions of this history. The first is that Gomez, an Indian cook in Singapore, invented the dish in the 1950s when he decided to cook the fish heads which were usually thrown away. His version of the dish was then modified by another Indian cook. In this version of history, it is believed that Fish Head Curry is a uniquely Singaporean dish, as Indians traditionally do not eat fish heads as a meal in itself.

"The other story is related by a chef in an upmarket north Indian restaurant, who argues that fish head curry is not a Singapore creation..."

I am not sure which upmarket north Indian restaurant this Chennai based authority is speaking of, but I do know that the invention of fish head curry is claimed by the Muthu's Curry Restaurant in Singapore. And while being upmarket these days, Muthu's is a South Indian establishment. Naturally, Muthu's claim is rejected by most Malaysians.

Image copyright MakansutraImage copyright MakansutraImage copyright Makansutra

REPRESENTING MALAYSIA -- Mumuchi wrote: "I don't know what it is about Singapore's predilection to claim many common favourite dishes as originating from their little island as I may have reflected previously. Recently I was watching an Asian Food Channel show that tried to trace the origins of Fish Head Curry that is claimed to have been originated from there as was also featured in other international food shows including Bobby Chin's World Cafe Asia. The difference here was that the show at least showed that there was three possible sources of origin, though the claim was still that fish head curry was invented there.

"The show started with the assiduous restaurant claim to the invention, supposedly by the patriarch of Muthu Curry Restaurant who said they were the first to get the idea to offer previously discarded fish head into such a delectable dish in 19XX that has remained as the primary destination in Singapore to get the South Indian Fish Head Curry. But the name South Indian curry gets me thinking, even though it may be referring to the style of curry cooking does not the name itself indicates that fish head is not such a strange ingredient to be made into a curry. Indulge me to the end why I think this to be a not so strange conclusion to make.

"Where the claim takes a surprising turn is when [Claim 2] the proprietor of a halal Chinese Restaurant, a certain Mr Ng asserted that it was him that actually came up with such a dish in the early 50's after experimenting with the curry mix when he was a stall helper in the vicinity of Indian restaurants that he learned from to how make a curry. Offering a less spicier version in his restaurant called Our Makan Shop, the curry actually looked like the typical Nyonya or Straits Chinese curry prevalent in the region. It is not a surprise that the Nyonyas after centuries of assimilation managed to develop their own curry version, but Mr Ng offered no reason why he was inspired to serve fish head in curry form as an original dish or why it was he alone who tinkered with such a concoction. As I am no Nyonya culture expert, I am unable to ascertain if Nyonya food has featured fish curry as a recent invention or it has a been generational food inherited through the ages as it should be. In addition, I have seen fish head dishes as a gourmand delicacy in mainland china, so I do not think it takes a long stretch of imagination for the Chinese of the region to turn the fish head into a curry dish in a version of their own down the ages.

"The argument is also furthered by the fact that the Malays, in this show in particular, actually has had fish head in curry form in their traditional cuisine although for them it is actually gulai or a spiced gravy dish. Well if you think about it gulai is a version of curry though the Malay spice mix is actually more piquant than a typical curry spice. But I can vouch that the Malays do not treat fish head as a separate curry in itself, as all parts of the fish will be thrown in into the curry in their cooking. In a culture familiar with scarcity and that discourages wastage, the fish head may be the favoured part reserved for the head at the family table, but all parts of the fish will be thrown in the pot, as you can also find in their other dishes like soups, assam and such.

"Thus I suspect that Fish Head Curry is really a creation of the poor if it was really true that the large fishes' heads was previously discarded or sold at a discount in the market. It may have been a wise restaurateur who decided that why waste a good portion of his fish supply by adapting a poor man's recipe and elevating it as a gourmet's dish it has become. As whether the origin of this wise fellow is Singapore or otherwise, that is still a subject that can be contested. Other regional points of fish head curry madness will deign to do so if they ever managed to stop to ruminate about such claims from their more important quest for the best fish head curry in town. To quote Singapore's own Makansutra Guru K. F. See Toh, 'Why You wanna talk when there's good food ah?'"

Image copyright MakansutraImage copyright MakansutraImage copyright Makansutra

I HAVE TO AGREE WITH K F SEE TOH HERE -- why do you want to bicker over food ownership, when there is so much good food to be eaten? Instead of seeing the fish head curry debate as a symbol of division, I prefer to see it as a symbol of unity. Because one of the things which unites Malaysians and Singaporeans, is their love of fish head curry. Here are some places (amongst many many others) where you can find this dish of acclaim, in the acclaimed city of Kuala Lumpur!

Hameed's Famous Fish Head Curry Restaurant: This was the first place I checked out in Kuala Lumpur, one orange and rainy night at the beginning of May 2005, by the muddy banks of the Klang River. I had just checked into my hotel, and wanting a little adventure, headed downstairs to find some decent Indian food to eat. My hotel was in the center of ChinaTown, and after a bit of wandering and dodging the hawks, as strange bats flitted through the trees and rotten shophouses loomed above, I found this place. It seemed like a hawker center in the classic Malay Peninsula style, with plenty of chairs spread out under fluorescent lights, and waiters as attendant as moons...
This next point is off the beaten track a little, but what the hell... it comes from The Mouth of Truth:
At the Central Market, I also had a consultation with The Mouth of Truth. It's near Hameed's Famous Fish-Head Curry. Made of plastic, it's a big Italianate head. And if you put a ringgit in the slot and put your hand it its mouth, it will give you your fortune. Apparently it's modeled on something Audrey Hepburn did, which I don't see the point of, because she died. Anyway, you put your hand in and it beeps at you. Then it tells you to get your hand out of its mouth.
But if you're not careful, you forget to push the English-language button and it talks in Malay, which you don't understand because it sounds like a tongue where people speak backwards. Then you don't find out what your fortune is because you can't understand it. But still, I think the Malaysians must be quite technologically advanced people if they can build the world's tallest towers and they also provide oracles that only cost a ringgit.
After succouring the sumptious fish head curry dishes at Hameed's, you ought to give the Italian lady a whorl...

Jalan Sungai Besi.
According to dSaints Education, some of the best fish head curry in Kuala Lumpur can be found here. Said dSaints: "Fish head off Jalan Sungai Besi; just past Won Ton Mien, turn left right after BP. Three shops clumped together. All look dilapidated but don't worry. Don't know what type of fish they get their heads from, but I suspect fresh water fish. Hot sauce fish head to die for. Extremely reasonable prices."

Kg Attap.
Masak Masak writes: "I love the Kampung Attap area which isn't really a kampung as you don't see village houses like Kampung Baru but was known instead as an area for police accomodation. Although the area is very run down, I often go there as I have two favourite stalls: this one that serves yummy ayam madu (Malay for honey chicken) and fish head curry and another one that serves excellent fried chicken. Another plus point about Kampung Attap is the excellent frozen food specialist, Lee's Frozen Food which sells all kinds of frozen meat and seafood at reasonable prices.
"The stall has been in business for almost twenty years and moved in to this premises since 1992. Usually you queue up and order your food from this man who will cut the fried chicken for you and pour the sticky honey sauce flavoured with spices. If you are not eating chicken due to the bird flu scare, you can also choose from large squids, fried fish and mutton curry.
"I had a plate of ayam madu, my favourite which comes with two kinds of vegetables: the curry vegetables which is taken from the same pot of the fish head curry and the bean sprouts and spinach. You also get a handful of crackers with the meal. Excellent stuff which only set me back by RM4.20.
"The enormous fish head curry (order only when you have a horde of hungry friends with you) is from a large type of fish known as ikan merah in Malay (sorry I have no idea what it's called in English) and each plate costs about RM40 (price may vary due to the size) . The guy who ladles up the fish head curry is a real expert as he fishes inside the large metal pot to dig out the fish head which is hidden by the vegetables in the curry.
"(This place is only open from 11 am to 3 pm from Mondays to Saturdays. The shack is just at the corner of Jalan Kg Attap and can be seen from Federal Highway. If coming from Federal Highway, take the road towards the Palace and swing left at the sign that says Kg Attap, turn left into Kg Attap at the Chinese Assembly Hall and go straight all the way, the stall is on your left hand side. It's advisable to park at the back near the flats as if you don't get a space in front, you will end up at the highway again)..."

Restaurant Hameed's: Johor Bahru City Square, J3-05, Level 3. Phone: 607-226 0486.
Indian-Muslim food has never been so scrumptious! This place boasts the infamous curry fish head, nasi briyani, chicken curry, chicken kurma, chicken kashmir, mutton mysore, medan beef, prawns, crabs, cuttle fish, penang rojak, soup, roti canai and murtabak.

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