No gar­den va­ri­ety curry

Find­ing a gem of a fish head curry in alor Star.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - TASTE - Story and photo by LEE YU KIT star2@thes­

IT was near­ing lunchtime, and my trav­el­ling com­pan­ions and I found our­selves near Alor Se­tar, Kedah, with no clue of where to go for a de­cent meal be­fore we hit the long stretch of food-des­o­late waste­land that is the North-South high­way back to KL.

With mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, it re­ally wasn’t a prob­lem. A search on the In­ter­net us­ing a smart­phone in­formed us of a “must-try” curry fish head restau­rant nearby. The GPS in­formed us it was just 2.5km away from our lo­ca­tion. The mel­liflu­ous fe­male voice on the smart­phone GPS guided us to our desti­na­tion, and when we missed the turn­ing, un­like a hu­man fe­male, she didn’t lose her cool or chide us, but pa­tiently guided us through the back­lanes of a hous­ing es­tate back to­wards our desti­na­tion, crisply in­form­ing us to turn this way and that be­fore the turn came up with unerring ac­cu­racy. One day, I’d like to date this woman.

Our desti­na­tion wasn’t ob­vi­ous, be­ing lo­cated in a hous­ing es­tate called Ta­man Se­tia Jaya. Af­ter we parked our ve­hi­cle, we had to ask at a nearby shop to find the tar­get. It was a cor­ner lot at the back of the shop­houses, a small restau­rant with no more than 10 ta­bles scat­tered over the broad ve­ran­dah. The restau­rant’s odd name ini­tially made us think we’d been mis­guided to a flower gar­den, but there it was: “Hainan Orkid Tropika”, with Chi­nese let­ter­ing ad­ver­tis­ing “Curry Fish Head and In­ex­pen­sive Stir-Fried dishes”.

The ta­bles were all oc­cu­pied, but we were for­tu­nate that one was be­ing va­cated just as we ar­rived, which we quickly “booked”.

The menu was a sin­gle lam­i­nated card with a stan­dard set of dishes, but ob­vi­ously, the star was the curry fish head. Curry fish head is some­thing of a Malaysian spe­cialty, and the In­di­ans and Chi­nese both have their ver­sion. The Chi­nese vari­a­tion, which is most likely an adap­ta­tion of the orig­i­nal In­dian dish, tastes dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent, and is usu­ally of­fered in two flavours: sour (us­ing asam, or tamarind, with­out co­conut milk), and with co­conut milk.

We sat, and or­dered the curry fish head with a set of sup­port­ing dishes, to be taken with white rice. While wait­ing, our drinks ar­rived, the usual as­sort­ment of soft drinks and a home-brewed leong char or “cool­ing tea”, in this case, pat poh (lit­er­ally “Eight Trea­sures”), which turned out to be a sweet and in­trigu­ing drink with slight over­tones of sar­sa­par­illa, and leong fun or black herbal jelly. It was so good I or­dered another one right away.

The kitchen staff and wait­resses op­er­ated like a well-oiled ma­chine, which they no doubt were, as the restau­rant has been op­er­at­ing for sev­eral years, and is well-known in foodie cir­cles and blogs, also hav­ing been fea­tured in the Chi­nese me­dia. Our food ar­rived to­gether with plates of hot, white rice, which was soft and fluffy, a per­fect ac­com­pa­ni­ment to the food: first a small plate of clams of the va­ri­ety the lo­cals call kepah, then stir-fried green veg­eta- bles, and white soya bean cubes in sauce.

The kepah are bi­valves like the more com­mon and pop­u­lar lala but are smaller with thicker shells, al­though col­lec­tively, they both be­long to the same genus known as venus clams. The clams them­selves are quite small but sweet with a slight fishy flavour. Th­ese had been cooked quickly with a sweet sauce, and they were fresh, and good for a nib­ble, sep­a­rat­ing eas­ily from their shells.

The veg­eta­bles, stir-fried quickly in a hot wok, were crunchy and fresh, and the soya bean cubes were silky smooth. Th­ese were all sup­port­ing cast mem­bers, how­ever, for the pièce de ré­sis­tance, a large oval plate filled to over­flow­ing with a thick, deep-yel­low creamy curry, and in the cen­tre, half a split fish-head.

The fish head was big, with a good chunk of meat and a pec­toral fin at­tached to it. Mint leaves had been scat­tered over the fish, while pieces of cut cu­cum­ber and brin­jal swam in the curry mix. It looked de­li­cious, but how did the curry taste?

It was sur­pris­ingly good, not very strong in the curry flavour, which is some­times the case with Chi­nese cur­ries. Ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic cooks of­ten go over­board with a herb or two, but this curry was very well bal­anced, taste­wise, with an over­all sen­sa­tion of smooth­ness, nor was it cloy­ingly thick as you might ex­pect if a lot of co­conut milk had been used. In fact, we later found out that it owed its smooth tex­ture and agree­able taste to a mix of co­conut milk ( santan) and a par­tic­u­lar brand of dairy milk, blended to a spe­cific recipe. The fish meat was su­perb, be­ing fresh, meaty and tasty, and com­ing off in sat­is­fy­ingly large chunks of white meat. It was a red snap­per, a com­mon, if prized sea-fish, for the tex­ture of its meat.

The curry was per­fect, taken with the rice, and it didn’t leave a burn­ing sen­sa­tion or that bloated feel­ing that of­ten ac­com­pa­nies rich curry dishes. In fact, it was a sur­pris­ingly mod­er­ate curry for all its creamy rich­ness. The fish head with the ac­cus­ing eye was pol­ished off by one of my com­pan­ions who rel­ished the gelati­nous tex­ture of cooked fish eye.

The bill for the five of us, all in with drinks, was RM78, which was more than rea­son­able, given the size of the half-fish head, and the over­all quan­tity of food, which was just right, as we cleaned up ev­ery­thing like good, con­sci­en­tious Malaysian din­ers. And it said some­thing about the food that I al­most suc­ceeded in not nod­ding off on the long drive home. Good thing I wasn’t driv­ing.

Heads up: The tex­ture of the fish head curry is smooth and agree­able due to a mix of co­conut and dairy milks blended to a spe­cific recipe.

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