I haven’t posted in awhile because I returned to the States for the holidays. Now that I’m back in Singapore and have hopefully readjusted to the time difference, I’ll be updating at least twice a week…or so the plan goes.
Before I left for the holidays, I had the opportunity to try two iconic foods – fish head curry and chilli crabs. These dishes are frequently promoted as “uniquely Singaporean” creations, but that may be up for debate. Nevertheless, I’ll share the generally accepted Singaporean legends while acknowledging this bias.
Fish Head Curry
Fish head curry is a complete fish head cooked in a spicy, tangy tamarind curry with vegetables like okra and tomatoes. The Singaporean story claims that it was invented in the 1950s by an Indian chef named Gomez, who decided to cook the fish heads, which were normally thrown away by cooks within the Indian community. This is where the story stops. I don’t know what Gomez’s last name is – I like to think that back in the day he was as famous as Madonna or Cher and didn’t need a last name. Or maybe Gomez is his last name. It’s unclear, as is information about where he worked.
Two of the most famous restaurants for fish head curry today are Muthu’s Curry (138 Race Course Rd) and Samy’s Curry (Blk 25 Dempsey Rd or at the Civil Service Club). The Muthu’s Curry website insists that their proprietor, Mr. Ayyakkannu invented the dish. I don’t tend to believe such claims by commercial establishments, unless I can substantiate them with another source. However, I read once that Gomez’s version was later modified by another Indian chef, with the implication that the modification is the dish commonly served today. It’s possible this is where Muthu’s claim comes from. (It’s also possible that Gomez/Mr. Ayyakkannu were the same person, but I’ve found no connections between the two.) I suppose if I run out of other research to do, I can look more into this.
Another problem with the story is that fish head curry is also a dish served in Bengal. Unless this dish appeared in Bengal after the 1950s, the use of fish heads in curry was clearly not “invented” in Singapore. That being said, the Bengali version is described as “rich” and supposedly uses a river fish, whereas the Singaporean version is “tangy” and generally uses a red snapper.
My fish head curry experience was at Samy’s Curry Restaurant at the Civil Service Club with my friend Ted, who is a former Civil Servant. I was excited about eating there because I thought I’d finally made a connection that was entitling me to exclusive dining opportunities. (It’s admittedly unlikely that I’ll be invited to any chefs’ tables or impossible-to-get-a-reservation-at restaurants anytime soon.) As it turns out, anyone can eat at the restaurant, but I was still excited about the fish head curry.
However, when the curry arrived, I was disappointed. I couldn’t see the fish head. I had Ted dig it out, but it didn’t look as disgusting as I thought it should. I couldn’t see its eyes – I thought part of the (lack of) appeal of the dish was the fact that your food stared at you as you ate it. I took a spoon and started scraping curry off of the fish head, so I could see it more clearly (and vice versa), and took the picture below.
Thankfully, Ted took over serving the dish. If I had been alone, I think I would have assumed you just started biting off pieces of the head. Then again, my mother taught me never to pick something up with my fork that was larger than one bite. So perhaps, when I started trying to dissect it into smaller pieces, I would’ve realized that you could just dig the meat out without biting into the fish skin.
At least I assumed Ted was just digging meat out, because all that wound up on my plate (which was actually a banana leaf) was a white substance, resembling (surprise!) cooked fish. And here’s the secret to fish head curry – it also tasted like cooked fish. Delicious, tender, amazing, kind of spicy, cooked fish. The meat from the cheeks, which might sound odd, was actually the most tender and tastiest of all.
People who are slightly squeamish when it comes to adventurous eating may want to skip ahead, because we also ate the fish’s eyes. This really wasn’t as bad as it might sound. I think that the eyeball had been removed since nothing was protruding from the socket, and so I think we actually ate the connective tissue behind the eye. (Or whatever’s behind the eyeball; it’s been a long time since my high school bio class.)
I’m not sure how Ted removed the eye socket from the head (carefully, I suppose), but a little round object about the size of my thumbnail appeared on my banana leaf. It’s important to note you don’t eat the whole thing, nor do you bite down. Basically, you just put the socket in your mouth, suck out what’s inside, and then remove the cartilage from your mouth.
What was it like? Unfortunately, the experience was over in about a second, so my brain was processing “ohmygodiameatingafisheye” and didn’t have time to think much else. The texture was a bit interesting – sort of gelatinous, sort of squishy. The taste was better than I was expecting, although that might be because it was somewhat neutral, as opposed to having a strong flavor. I’d eat it again – assuming I could figure out how to get it from the fish onto my plate.
Despite a recent claim by the Malaysian Tourism Minister that Chilli Crabs are Malaysian, Singaporeans seem to accept that Madam Cher Yam Tian invented the dish in the 1950s. According to the story, her husband used to catch crabs and bring them home, where she steamed them. One day, he asked her to do something different and she cooked them in a tomato sauce. He found the sauce a little sweet and suggested she add some chilli. Family and friends who tried the dish recommended she start selling it and she began operating a pushcart along East Coast Road. By 1956, the pushcart had grown into a small restaurant called Palm Beach Seafood. In the 1960s, Hooi Kok Wai, the owner of the Dragon Phoenix restaurant, modified the recipe; instead of using bottled chilli and tomato sauce, he used lemon juice, vinegar, sambal, tomato paste, and eggs, thereby making the dish richer and less sweet. This version spread throughout the island, but you can still try the original recipe at Roland’s Restaurant, which is operated by Madam Cher Yam Tian’s son, Roland.
I tried the chilli crabs at Roland’s as part of a dinner organized by Leslie Tay, a Singaporean food blogger who writes ieatishootipost. This dinner turned out to be a great experience, and not just because the chilli crabs were amazing. To begin with, as I approached the registration desk, the woman behind it announced my first and last name before I said anything. I was immediately impressed and suspicious – how did she know who I was? Is a Singaporean Big Brother watching me? It later occurred to me that not only was I one of the last people to arrive, I was also the only non-Asian female in a room of 150 people. (But just in case, I’m sorry about those times I jaywalked – there was no crosswalk and/or everyone else was doing it. And I definitely didn’t bring back any gum from my trip to the States.)
The seat I was shown to was next to an empty seat; a few minutes later someone sat in it and I recognized the occupant as Leslie, the blogger. His blog received 8 million hits last year and won a regional award for having the best food blog, so (at least in my opinion) he’s Kind of a Big Deal. He was very friendly and started asking me questions, including how I’d found my way to that seat. He then told me I was in his wife’s seat, but he would straighten out the mistake. Ultimately they decided I should just stay at the table and they pulled up an extra chair. I met a great couple who are planning to introduce me to more amazing Singaporean food spots and I may also get included on some smaller food expeditions organized by Leslie and his friends.
So I was having a good time before we even got to the chilli crabs. There were eight banquet-style dishes on our menu and after sitting through five, the chilli crabs finally arrived. They served our table first, but no one reached for the dish. I decided we were being polite and waiting for the other tables to get theirs before starting. Then, the other tables got theirs and started digging in, but we were still just staring longingly at the platter in the middle of the table. Or at least I was; I’m not sure where everyone else was looking as my eyes were focused solely on the crabs covered in a red, gooey, delicious-looking sauce. As I was wondering how much more restraint I had to keep me from grabbing the platter, someone made an announcement that we would be receiving mantou (a type of bun) to eat with the crabs. I hoped that was what we had been waiting for and that they came quickly. Finally someone suggested that we at least start serving the crab to everyone. I noticed that most people started eating immediately once they got some, despite the lack of mantou. I was apparently not the only one who was ready to start eating.
Eating the crab was a bit tricky as I had no silverware. Everyone else seemed fairly adept at using their chopsticks to seperate the crab meat from its shell. I’m normally decent with chopsticks, but apparently not when it comes to opening a crab claw and getting the meat out. I was a mess and thankful for the wet napkin next to my plate. Ultimately, though, my manners lost an internal battle and I licked my fingers. My napkin had no clean space on it, my fingers were messy, the sauce was delicious – it seemed like the only practical solution. It was clearly a better alternative to wiping my hands on the tablecloth, or so I rationalize.
Obviously, I enjoyed the chilli crabs. The sauce was sweet and not spicy at all. I’m not sure I could have told you there was chilli in it; it just tasted like crab in a delicious tomato sauce. The mantou, when it arrived, was warm and tasty and perfect for mopping up extra sauce. I predict more chilli crab in my near future, especially as my first visitor arrives in about a month and chilli crab is on the itinerary. I feel obligated to go try the newer version in the meantime, so I can decide which is best in case we don’t have time to try both. And after trying the other version, I’ll probably have to go back to Roland’s to refresh my memory…maybe I should get to work on this now.