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Wednesday April 2, 2008

Dish of acclaim


Malaysia’s southern neighbour should not try to lay claim to our fish head curry.

OVER A CUPPA by HOO BAN KHEE

The other night I was watching the Asian Food Channel on Astro, which featured fish head curry in Singapore. Surprise, surprise! Those Singaporeans claimed that they were the ones who came up with the delicacy. What cheek!

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.

I must say that Malaysians started eating fish head curry long before Singaporeans did. Only we were enjoying it quietly under big banyan trees by the roadside.

It was, of course, a nondescript dish until commercialisation stepped in and some clever cook turned it into something special, which, just like banana leaf curry rice, became very popular with Malaysians of all races.

I hope the delicacy will not end up like Pedra Branca or Pulau Batu Puteh, an island which has become the subject of overlapping claims between Malaysia and Singapore. The case is now being fought in the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Fish head curry is usually one of the most missed Malaysian dishes whenever we are overseas.

It must be said that it is a genuine Malaysian dish that is not available in India, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or even Indonesia. Of course, the Singaporeans are good at it also. But as usual, they are just copying and quick at claiming ownership.

Anyway, on this side of the Causeway, our fish head curry is cooked in many styles – Indian, which is full-bodied with pungent spices; Malay, which has belacan, shallots and garlic; and Chinese, which tends to be santan-laden. Besides curry, we also prepare fish head in soya sauce with plenty of ginger, soya sticks, slices of carrots and baby corn, all stewed in a clay pot.

The Singaporeans may also boast their own concoctions with similar flavours. If that’s the case, let them try our glorious Malacca Nyonya fish head curry which is 110% Malaysian. Nyonya dishes are uniquely Malaccan and any Nyonya dish found anywhere else is just fake.

If you are overseas long enough to miss Malaysian food, fish head curry is a taboo subject, at least in my family. No one is allowed to mention it lest it inflicts uncontrollable homesickness that could lead to desperation.

There is no cure for such sickness. The only relief is to book the next flight home.

Once upon a time, only the Indians could cook fantastic fish head curry having been in the business for a long time. Some of the best fish head curry is served in makeshift shelters with zinc roofs and eaten under the sweltering heat of the noonday sun.

Oh, it’s full of oomph, the heat from above and the heat on the tongue. After such a meal, there is great contentment in the stomach and drowsiness in the eyes.

The Chinese caught on later, equally apt at wok-ing up the delicacy in a different style. Today, every other Chinese restaurant seems to serve it and boasts that its offering is the best in town. And really, they are just as mouth-watering as those found in Indian restaurants.

When I was serving in London, I chanced upon a stall selling salmon fish heads very cheaply at a wet market. They were fresh and meaty. I couldn’t believe my eyes. At 50 pence (RM3.15) each, my wife quickly snapped up a few and since they were fish heads, we naturally thought of cooking a curry with them. Happily, we found some withering lady’s fingers at an Indian shop and eggplant too, which together cost much more than the fish heads.

We put the faithful curry powder we brought from home into action and you know what? It was the best home-cooked dish we had had in a long, long time.

Got anything to say about claims to food origins? E-mail startwo@thestar.com.my

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