Sep 182012

In the post on Fish Head Curry I mentioned that Muthu’s also does a very good centerpiece dish – a Tandoori Fish Head. They face some stiff competition in the Indian fine dining space along Race Course Road from the likes of Gayatri and Banana Leaf Apolo. This dish is one of the ways that they stand out.

Tandoori Fish Head, Muthu's, Little India, Singapore

Muthu’s has a lot going for it – a very good Fish Head Curry, a wide variety of other food options, good service, and a glassed in tandoor oven area – the tandoor (a clay circular pit oven) provides interesting entertainment. Observing a skilled chef placing naan bread in a tandoor is quite something, and the guys at Muthu’s are quite good natured about having an audience.
The Tandoori Fish Head takes 20 minutes to prepare and cook – this provides time to soak up the atmosphere, some other dishes or snacks, and a Kingfisher beer or two.
The Fish Head arrives, served with mint chatni and tamarind sauce, to the admiring comments of those that have not seen this dish before. The meat is slightly crisped on the outside from the tandoor – but soft and succulent tasty on the inside. The tandoori marinade is spicy enough without being overpowering.
Before long, it is gone. If you think that there cannot be a lot of meat on a fish head, just compare this “meal’s end” photo with the one above:

Tandoori Fish Head at Meal's End, Muthu's, Little India, Singapore
This is one of my must try recommendations for anyone interested in Indian food in Singapore – alongside the vegetarian dosa and the humble roti prata, it is one of my favourite things to eat here.

Sep 062012

It’s fair to say that one of the reasons I came to Singapore was the laksa. Katong, not far from where I now live, is one of the stated birth places of this wonderfully rich spicy curry noodle soup.

For those of you that have never enjoyed laksa because by accident of birth and circumstance you find yourself in the wrong hemisphere, I truly apologise. For those that have been to a food court somewhere and had a tepid mess of overcooked underfresh noodles in a bleak dirty water tinned curry paste broth, I also apologise. You’ve missed out.

Let me start by saying that I know that there are many varieties of laksa, and each of these has a number of names…these names, in turn, often prepended by “The Authentic…”, “The Original…”, or some other title. Given that there is so much controversy on what this laksa or that laksa is actually called, it is not possible to describe it without contradicting one expert or another – and in doing so, cause offense. That said, if I am going to talk about my own laksa journey, I need to define it in my own terms so you’ll know what I am talking about. I am a simple soul, and divide all laksa I’ve experienced to date into two main groups:

  • The curry soup with coconut milk in it (Laksa Lemak, Katong Laksa, call it what you will – I’ll stick to the generic Bahasa Melayu “Laksa Lemak” – lemak meaning “fat” or “rich”) – basically, take some hot stock, add curry/shrimp paste, add coconut milk/coconut cream, add noodles of some description, throw in some veggies and one or more of shrimp/pork/beef/chicken. Laksa leaf (Vietnamese Mint or Duan Laksa) is optional in some locations. Add spongy fried tofu, sprinkle with fried shallots/onions, and serve.
  • The curry soup without coconut milk in it, usually fish based (Assam Laksa, Laksa Penaeng) – basically, take a fish (usually a Mackarel), boil it until the bones are soft, smoosh fish (bones and all) up into a paste, add a souring agent (lime, calimansi, and/or tamarind pulp) and some curry paste (but no coconut milk). Add noodles, maybe some veggies, sometimes some tofu, and serve.

My first Laksa Lemak experience was at the Dickson Asian Noodle House, in the late 1990s. This family run restaurant is in a suburb in Canberra, Australia, not far from where I grew up. Spicy, rich, tasty, delicious, more-ish, pick an adjective, it was that and more. A hot flavoursome curry soup, rich coconut base, noodles, bits of chicken pork and duck, slightly crunchy choi sum, big triangles of fried tofu soaking up the curry sauce goodness. It changed me. I went back there many times, and still miss it.

To my shame, I only have one picture of a Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak available to me here in Singapore – the rest are on hard drives in storage back in Australia. This is a Duck Laksa at meal’s end:


The picture above does no justice to the spicy creaminess of the curry broth and the rich flavour of the slices of duck meat. I enjoyed many laksas at Dickson (mostly duck or vegetable with extra tofu) over the next ten plus years.

I’ve also had Laksa Lemak since in Singapore, Malaysia (West and East), Thailand, and the US. With apologies, I have to say that I am still looking for a better one than I had in Canberra – the richness of the coconut milk/cream and the intensity of flavour are not quite there. I’ll keep looking – but please, if you have a favourite, leave a comment and let me know.

As for Assam Laksa… I’ve enjoyed that in many places too – but the best I have had is the one in the Air Hitam Wet Market, Penang, Malaysia. Apart from the garlic and black bean crab (post to follow), it was the standout highlight of the weekend in Penang a month back. We asked our driver/guide Mr Choong to take us to the best Assam Laksa in Penang – he took us to Air Hitam, away from the tourist bustle of Georgetown and the coastal beach resort areas.  Note the price – MYR3.50 is about SGD1.30, and around AUD/USD1.

The laksa stand is on the edge of one of the busy vehicle traffic areas inside the wet market – and if you want to get a picture of the uncle spooning the rich fish curry into bowls of noodles, be careful (the drivers do not stop for tourists) :)

What is the taste? Sour, spicy, fishy, golden wonderful curry goodness. In it’s own distinct way, this is the Assam Laksa equivalent to the Dickson Asian Noodle House Laksa Lemak.These two best in breed examples share an intensity of flavour, a kind of no holes barred intensity, a fantastic balance of flavour and chili heat – things that I really admire.

I’m not suggesting that you get on a plane to Penang tomorrow, but if you are in the region, it is absolutely worth a visit. I’ve got a post planned on my impressions of Penang as a food tourism destination, and will talk about it more then.

You can see the gleam of bright red chili oil in the shot above – also the chopped shallots and rich black mackerel curry. It may be a little salty for some, but this is the style of the thing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I opted for larger noodles – they also sell it there with smaller noodles (I’m guessing rice vermacelli – hopefully I’ll get to find out next trip). This shot shows the noodles and some of the other ingredients that were hidden lower down in the bowl.

So… the quest for the perfect Laksa Lemak continues. And I will absolutely be going back to Penang for more of that Assam Laksa from Air Hitam. And I hope, in time, to find more regional variants to be cataloged and described (but above all, enjoyed).

Sep 052012

I love a good Fish Head Curry.

This one is from Banana Leaf Apolo, Race Course Road, Little India (and yes, the rich colour is as served):

The first place I experienced this delicacy was Krishna’s Fish Head Curry, near the ferry terminal on Labuan, East Malaysia. Labuan holds many fond memories for me – time spent with my late father before he passed away,  footlong prawns (so called because they really are a foot long), excellent Chinese delicacies from the Tiara Hotel, duty free spirits, and the “I can’t believe it’s not chicken” vegetarian cuisine from the Global Hotel. The Fish Head Curry from Krishna’s was, from memory, the most expensive item on the menu at MYR8 (about SGD3) – by comparison, that was more than they charged for the biryani of the day plus lime juice for two people :) It was surprisingly good – rich curry sauce, fish head cooked well (perhaps a little overcooked by Singaporean standards, but very tasty nonetheless). So when I came to Singapore I had to try it anew.

“Are you nuts, Andrew? Is there any meat on the head?” you ask… and that is a good question. Yes, there is a lot of meat on a good sized fish head – it is usually cut just in front of the pectoral fins and so there is the equivalent to the shoulder of the fish, as well as the cheek meat.

And please be warned, there are bones. Yes, the fish is a vertebrate animal, and they contain bones. Sometimes, towards the end of the curry, you need to sift through a fair few bones to get to the meat. And this needs to be done carefully. This shot shows meal’s end for a decent sized fish head – and you can see a lot of bones there:

Like many Asian specialities, there are many claimants for the origins of Fish Head Curry. Apart from the usual Malaysia/Singapore food origin rivalry, there are people that claim that the Indian style absolutely originated in India. There is a counter claim that a famous Indian chef lived in Singapore for many years, developed Fish Head Curry here, then took it back to his native Kerala when he retired. All I can say for certain is that some of my Indian colleagues claim to have eaten similar curries a long time ago. For myself, with all respect, I have to say that I am completely colour blind when it comes to a good Fish Head Curry – the taste today is more important to me than who first made it sixty years ago.

Here in Singapore, like many other things, everyone has a favourite that they are willing to recommend. I seem to have settled on the Indian/Kerala style curry as distinct from other styles (although I am more than willing to be convinced otherwise – please leave a recommendation as a comment!). And for my money, it comes down to Muthu’s vs Banana Leaf Apolo – both have restaurants on Race Course Road in Little India, and both produce a fine Fish Head Curry – rich curry gravy, spicy but not overly so, plenty of meat on the head, okra to thicken it. I’ve seen people of all ages and cultural backgrounds enjoying it in both places. I have a slight lean toward Muthu’s because their dishes contain a little more curry sauce, and they also do a very good baked Tandoori Fish Head (a good centrepiece dish for a group dinner, and tasty besides). The rivals to Muthu’s and Banana Leaf Apolo that I have tried to date seem to get the gravy a little wrong (too spicy without enough flavour), or the fish is overcooked and dry.

This is how I like to enjoy Fish Head Curry – shared with friends, served with biryani rice and a cold Kingfisher beer:

I look forward to my next one :)