27 September 2009

Singapore: Ocean Curry Fish Head

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

They can't play baseball, they don't wear sweaters
They're not good dancers, they don't play drums

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

Rolly Polly fish heads are never seen drinking cappuccino in
Italian restaurants with Oriental women.

Fish heads, fish heads, rolly polly fish heads
Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up

The Fish Head Song

When in Singapore
there are a few things that I insist on eating, without exception: Hainan Chicken Rice, Satay, either Pepper or Chilli Crab, and lastly, Fish Head Curry. Of these favourites, I have yet to find a venue in Melbourne that produces them to the high standards of Singapore.

The recipes for these Straits Chinese dishes have evolved in the kitchens of generations of Nonya's - female Peranakan's - descendants of the Fukienese from China who married local Malays. From as far back as the fifteenth century, The Peranakan made their homes in the former British colonies of Malacca, Penang and Singapore, as well as parts of Indonesia and the Isthmus of Kra.

Some Peranakan came via Phuket and brought with them a love of sour tamarind flavoured dishes, chilli and fresh Asian herbs. All seemed inspired by the local confluence of trade, where markets were filled with an abundance of spices from India.

The Malay influence in the cooking can be found in pounded spice pastes made from candlenuts, rhizomes and belanchan. The Chinese love of pork, duck and seafood is also evident. Chinese pickles and sauces are widely used; tropical coconut and pandan leaves drift into many dishes too

Along with practicing Chinese Ancestor Worship and upholding Confucian values, educated Peranakans very much embraced Western ways. In terms of food, they took on Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, mayonnaise, breads and pastries. From this melting pot of cultures evolved a unique fusion food that I often crave.

On our latest trip
to Singapore, we spent time with my dearest Bin, who I love as my sister. In my childhood, it was Bin's mother who cared for me in many times of family stress. And through her I was first introduced to Strait's Chinese cooking. The pull of this cooking is as strong as my link with the Hungarian food that comforted me at other times of my dysfunctional childhood.

Bin checked with her colleagues as to where to find 'The Best' Fish Head Curry in Singapore and as I expected, it was not a glamorous venue but a simple shop in Chinatown with many tables on the pavement. She cautioned us to meet her at her office by noon as the restaurants with the best reputation are full to capacity within minutes of opening for lunch.

We strode quickly to Ocean Curry Fish Head on Telok Ayer Street and grabbed an al fresco table. I gazed at the colourful old Chinese shop houses around us, while Bin went inside to the counter and ordered. Very quickly our fresh lime soda's arrived in large glass mugs and by that stage the venue was full.

Situated on a corner, the venue was open on two sides to the street, with large striped awnings sheltering customers below. We sat on red plastic stools at a round Formica topped table. A very basic set up, there were no frills when it came to accoutrements at Ocean Curry Fish Head, its reputation alone seemed to be all that was necessary to draw crowds. Furnished with cutlery and a moist towelette in an Ocean Curry Fish Head branded pack, we were equipped and anticipating a good meal ahead.

Inside, the counter, a bain marie and a TV dominated the room. A queue snaked its way to the counter as the hungry lunch time horde descended. Off to the sides, those who missed out on a table, waited like hungry seagulls, keeping eyes alert and making ready to swoop on any table where diners looked as though they might leave.

Bin ordered us stuffed squid, beans with XO sauce and a dish of Chilli clams - a dish many avoid in Singapore in fear of contracting amoebic dysentery, but we took our lives into our hands and indulged anyway, finding no side effects felt later. The dishes were simply prepared but delicious, a good foil texturally to the centrepiece to come. And then the curry arrived. Resplendent in a well used claypot, it wafted its steamy aromas seductively across the table to me.

On a hot humid day in Singapore, the heat put out by this heavy clay dish made the sweat flow freely. Beside us, local workers were mopping their brows and looking a little dishevelled by the exertions of plowing through both the heat and chilli of the dish in steamy conditions.

As I added the slurry of coconut based sauce to a mound of rice before me, the scent of fresh turmeric greeted my nostrils. A second later I felt the tickle of chilli making my nostrils flare like an impatient racehorse.

Burying my tongue in the rice and sauce mix, I picked up ground coriander, cumin, fenugreek, mustard seeds, wafts of ginger, garlic and tamarind, sweetened and thickened with coconut cream. I was in raptures of ecstasy - this was a dish fit for the Gods.

I felt sweat beading on my nose as I ate. In the mix were large chunks of white fleshed fish head, and we dove in for cheeks, and I for eyes and the tongue. There were whole ladies fingers - also known as okra - slices of long slim brinjal - slender purple eggplant - onion and chunks of tomato. The concoction was odd texturally; soft and vaguely slimy elements offset by an intense, rich and spicy sauce.

I don't tend to eat a lot of rice, but in this instance it was the best way to enjoy the sauce. I would have been as happy with a big loaf of stale bread to soak up every last drop, but I doubt that I would have made it through, as the dish is deceptively filling. Like that expanding gap filler available in hardware stores, it seems to swell up from within.

The hovering, late-coming, hungry hordes, desperate to snare a table had moved just feet from our seats as we launched into the dish. And as our plates began to empty, they made their presence clearly felt standing just inches from us. So mopping ourselves down with our complimentary moist wipes, we paid up. And to the relief of the human seagulls, beat a hasty retreat around the corner to wander through hospitality-ware stores and to go to a traditional Chinese shop to eat some uniquely Singaporean Chinese desserts.

Within seconds back at Ocean Curry Fish Head, our seats had been taken and the process of enjoyment had began again, and again.


Thermomixer said...

Great work SF - the squid looks very tender - was it cooked for a long time? Can you recommend somewhere for good XO in Melb?

Does anywhere do a half decent FHC? I have eaten some at a cooking school that was v good.

penny aka jeroxie said...

One of the dishes that I have to eat when I'm in SG is fish head curry. My personal favourites are Banana leaf and Sammy's. Fish head curry and 2 glasses of icy lime juice. Perfect! Now you are making me crave for FHC!

Anonymous said...

A great read Sticky-i SO want to eat this food right now & its not even 8 in the morning!
The curry looks so rich, i chuckled at your sentiments about mopping it up with bread- a woman after my own heart!
I hope victor reads this as he worships at the shrine of Straits cooking

Ed Charles said...

Yep, I want that for breakfast too.

3 hungry tummies said...

Straight to Victoria street to get some ingredients for fish curry!!!!
Now I'll know where to eat next time I'm in town.

Shmii said...

Just stumbled upon your blog through twitter. Already a fan of your photos!
I was forced by my folks when I was younger to eat fish head curries. They'd prepare it in a curry sauce, lentil base, or as a dry dish, and I was always queasy about it. It's a very common dish amongst the Bengali community in India though. It's interesting to know people in Singapore enjoy it too!