Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Fish Head Curry

As any regular readers may have realised, I have a tendency to hark back to the 70s and 80s of UK TV, and this is yet another occasion. It might be hard to believe in this post-Brexit, "No Nanny State tells me what the fuck to do!" world, but back in the day, they used to show adverts made by the government. Public information films were made to advise people that doing certain things were a generally a stupid fucking idea to have thought about doing in the first place. They had ads about making sure you didn't leave your TV plugged in overnight because it could cause a fire. They had ads saying you should be able to swim. Then there was a different class of ads for kids. Many of them were about how to cross the road safely. We had the Tufty Club, which isn't a euphemism for a lady's private parts (well, not originally, at least); there was a pre-Darth Vader Dave Prowse as the Green Cross Man.

It wasn't all about crossing the road, though. By far the most memorable public information films for kids were the "Charley says...." adverts. For readers that don't know these, they were shit cartoons and featured a poorly drawn small boy (not to be confused with Badly Drawn Boy or the Viz character he took his name from) and his pet cat, Charley, about to do some stupid shit, until the cat meowed his apparently incomprehensible advice that was then interpreted by the small boy. The Charley ads included warnings to kids not to play with matches; not to bugger off without telling mummy where you're going; and even not to pull on table cloths in case you pull hot tea all over yourself. When the boy did the right thing, as prompted by the cat, the mother rewarded the boy and Charley. The boy received an apple (thanks a lot Mum, This is the 70s, they do sell chocolate, you know, you tight-fisted, joy-sucking bitch) and Charley got given a whole fish, which he proceeded to eat very noisily, as you can see from the video

So, what the fuck does this have to do with your recipe, you might be asking. Well, the point is, Charley eats the fish but leaves the skeleton, including the tail and, most relevant, the head untouched. This is a load of bollocks, since any self-respecting cat would relish the head of the fish as one of the best parts. The head might usually be only regarded as fit to make fish stock in the West, but go East and they are far more food-savvy and a lot less food-squeamish.

This is a dish that originates in the culinary melting pot of Singapore. Now, I know I have a tendency to take the piss out of Rick Stein for twatting on about when he first ate yak meat risotto in a Mongolian yurt, or how the best aubergine he ever tasted was this one time in Paris after it had been fermenting up a poodle's arse for a fortnight, but I'm going to do the same thing. No, not stick an aubergine up my arse (well, not right now, anyway, as it's more of a butternut squash kind of day), but reminisce about the time I ate fish head curry in a hawker centre in Singapore. I mean, yes, the curry was amazing, as food in Singapore generally is, but eating a fish head was an adventure in itself. Picking away at the meat around the neck and the cheeks, and the joy of discovering another little morsel here and there as you dissect it. Besides this, it's not every day you eat something that is looking back at you.

Recently I had bought a whole salmon which I cut into steaks and froze, including the head. I decided to reproduce the culinary experience of a fish head curry in the comfort of my own home. Now, as you may have gathered, Mrs Sweary is not actually that adventurous when it comes to food, bless her. She'd not touch a fish head with a pair of barge poles being used as chopsticks (she can't use chopsticks, anyway). Therefore I included some salmon steaks in the curry as well for her. In fact you could make this with just fish steaks, and do away with the head. You'd still have a great fish curry, but then you'd be missing out on the visual effect of eating something with eyes and a mouth gaping at you, and the fun and satisfaction of dissecting the tasty meat out from the rest of the head.

Preparation:  20 minutes
Cooking: 60 minutes

Curry paste
5 small shallots, roughly chopped
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
3 red chillies (eg birds eye), topped and chopped
a thumb-sized piece of ginger, roughly chopped
1 small piece of fresh tumeric (around the size the tip of you little finger), roughly chopped
half a stalk of lemon grass, sliced

Spice paste ingredients
Clockwise from top: shallots, garlic, ginger, tumeric, lemon grass, red chilli

Dry spices

3 tsp ground coriander
3 tsp ground cumin
½ tsp fenugreek
sick of cinnamon (around 5cm)
1 whole star anise
3 cloves
3 whole green cardamom
1 tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp salt

Other ingredients
2 tsp oil
200g okra, trimmed and cut into 2cm pieces
200g small (or 1 medium) aubergines sliced into 2cm pieces
200g cherry tomatoes, whole, washed and stems removed
20 curry leaves
400ml water
200ml coconut milk
1 tbsp tamarind paste, diluted in a couple of tbsp water and sieved to remove seeds
1 salmon head, plus two or three other salmon fillets

It's a salmon jigsaw!



Combine all the spice paste ingredients in a food processor and blend until they are a fairly smooth paste.

Add the oil to a heavy-based pan then add the dry spices.

Fry them for a minute then add the curry leaves for 2 minutes before adding the spice paste.

Fry for five minutes, stirring to prevent the mixture catching on the pan bottom.

Add the coconut milk, tamarind paste and water

Gently bring to the boil and add the vegetables.

Simmer gently for 5 minutes then place the fish into the liquid.

Allow to gently simmer for 20-30 minutes

Serve with plain boiled rice

Keep an eye on my dinner would you?

Salmon is probably about the only fish you can easily get hold of in my locale that has a big enough head to make a meal of, compared to something like a kingfish or a large snapper that are more common in the far east. See the notes to get some alternatives.

On the other hand, while I enjoyed this dish, salmon didn't work as well as a more neutrally flavoured fish probably would. You could do away with the idea of the fish head and do the same recipe with a whole seabass or red snapper. It may also work with a more traditional cold water fish like cod, but I haven't tried it.

I used fresh tumeric and curry leaves which may be a little difficult to get hold of. Use a teaspoon of ground tumeric and perhaps a bay leaf as an alternative. Likewise, for tamarind paste, replace it with the juice of half a lime to give a similar sour flavour. You could also use red onion instead of shallots.

An interesting fact about the "Charley says..." adverts, which I only discovered in writing up this recipe, is that the cat was voiced by the late, great Kenny Everett

It would be remiss of me if, having mentioned the "Charley says.." adverts, I didn't post this:

The Prodigy
Putting the "E" in Charley

The range of UK public information films produced by the UK government is actually quite staggering and an archive of them, from 1946 to 2006, can be found here

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