It's a bit gnarly, this dish. I am fully expecting a lot of you to recoil in horror, and some "bleurgh!"s bursting from you as you read this. Fish heads aren't that scary, really. As long as you don't think about it too carefully, and maybe avoid looking it in the eye as you lower it into the broth.
The head simmers in the curry broth, imparting crucial base notes of the sea. Fish heads are packed full of meat, and the most prized part is the cheek meat just under the eye. Nudge this bit out with the tip of your chopstick and you're rewarded with a nugget of tender, silky flesh. The skin droops off, falling into the soup and adding an extra texture, thickening it with the collagen.
For a little extra luxury I added mussels as I had them kicking around, but this isn't particularly traditional. Green beans and okra provided textures - crunchy and slimy - that worked well with the fish. I spent a happy 15 minutes picking my way around the head, fishing deep into the bowl to ladle the curry broth onto my rice. The curry was heady with spice and a squeeze of lime juice and a splash of fish sauce added fragrance.
All the recipes I found called for fish curry powder; this was kindly gifted to me from Goz. You can buy it online here, or most Asian supermarkets will sell it. If you can't be bothered to cook this and you're in London, go to Goz's supperclub instead.
Malaysian Fish Head Curry
1 fish head - mine was hake. My fishmonger kindly gave it to me for free. Avoid stronger, oily fish; snapper, cod, grouper or hake work best.
4 tbsp Malaysian fish curry powder
6 cloves of garlic
1 stick of lemongrass
4 dried red chillis, rehydrated
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp salt
1/2 tin of coconut milk
A handful of okra
A handful of fine green beans
2 ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
2 tbsp tamarind pulp, loosened in 300mls water - use your hands to work the pulp
2 sprigs of curry leaves - not dried
20 mussels (optional)
1 tsp sugar
1/2 a lime
1 tsp fish sauce
A few sprigs of coriander, for garnish
Rub the fish head with salt and set aside for 15 minutes. Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a dry frying pan. Add to a blender or a pestle and mortar to blend with the garlic, onion, chilli, lemongrass and salt. In a separate bowl add a little water to the curry powder to mix into a paste.
Heat some oil in a pan. Add the curry leaves and onion spice paste, and fry slowly until golden and toasty. Add the curry powder paste mix. Add the tamarind water (strained) and the coconut milk, then bring to a boil. Add the okra, and simmer gently for 5 - 10 minutes. Rinse the fish head, and then carefully place that in with the slices of tomato and the green beans. Place the lid on and cook on a gentle heat for 10 - 15 mins (depending on the size of your head). If using, add the mussels during the last two minutes of cooking, just so that they open up. Remove the lid and take off the heat. Add the fish sauce and the sugar, then replace the lid and leave to stand for 10 minutes to allow the flavours to mingle.
Ladle the head out of the pot, then spoon the curry sauce around it and garnish with coriander leaves and a wedge of lime. Serve with rice.