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Head hunter of Singapore

Believed to be a Bengali delicacy, the “world famous fish head curry” is actually a Singapore invention, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2008 11:16 IST
Vir Sanghvi

It’s a dish that has always mystified me. Sometime in the 1970s, I first heard of the “famous Indian fish head curry” in Singapore. I had to say that I knew nothing about this ‘famous Indian’ curry. I was aware that there was a tradition of eating fish heads in Bengal. Bengalis attributed their superior intelligence (have you ever met a Bong who does not believe that Bengalis are superior to the rest of us?) to their propensity to eat the bits of fish that the rest of us throw away. Thus, for a Bengali, the point of a prawn is not the tail but the head and specifically, the congealed brain juices.

Similarly, the fish head is endowed with mystical properties, cooked in dal and treated as a delicacy in a fish curry.
It seemed reasonable therefore to assume that the fish head curry that everyone raved about was Bengali in origin. I knew that some Goan dishes required fish heads but on the whole, outside of Bengal, Indians are not terribly keen on eating a fish while its eyes stare dolefully at us.

I was forced to revise this assumption for two reasons. When I moved to Calcutta, Bengalis denied that there was any world famous fish head curry as part of their repertoire. And I discovered that the most famous fish head curry in Singapore was served at a restaurant called Muthu’s.

Now, Muthu’s is a perfectly acceptable name for an Indian restaurant but somehow I found it hard to imagine a Bengali called Muthu. Clearly, the name had south Indian origins. And so perhaps, had the curry.
Except that no matter where I went in south India I never heard of any kind of fish head curry. Contrary to north Indian prejudice, there is a well-developed non-vegetarian cuisine in south India – some would even argue that Kerala has India’s best food – but south Indians do not like fish heads.

The mystery was only resolved a few years ago when I read one of the Singapore Tourism Board’s vastly boastful brochures about the cuisine of the city. Fish head curry was claimed as a Singapore specialty on par with chili crab and chicken rice.

A Singapore specialty? But surely it was of Indian origin? I got my answer last weekend when I went to the original Muthu’s in Singapore with my Discovery Travel and Living crew to solve the mystery of the “world famous fish head curry”.

Fish head curry is a Singapore invention. What’s more, it appears to be of relatively recent origin. It was invented by a man called Mr Ayyakkannu. He came from a small village near Chennai. When he was 13, his father found a job as a cook in Singapore and took him along. Ayyakkannu started working young as a helper in one of Singapore’s many coffee shops – in those days, Singapore was not the gleaming metropolis it is today so these were more like dhabas. Though he and his father lived and worked within Singapore’s substantial Tamil community, Ayyakkannu was curious enough to try and see what Singapore’s other communities were eating.

He was fascinated by the Chinese fondness for fish heads. They would cook them Chinese style, with soya sauce and would treat brain as the best part of the fish. Many would gouge out the eyes with their chopsticks and offer them to special guests. (All this sounds rather like the Arab tradition of offering the eye of a roast lamb to the guest of honour. So perhaps these traditions are more international than we
realise.)

You would expect any god-fearing Tamilian to be horrified by the sight of Chinamen gouging out fish eyes but clearly Ayyakkannu was made of sterner stuff than most of us. He decided to find a way of cooking the fish heads in a south Indian style.

The obvious thing to do was to make a standard Chettinad curry. But though he tried that, he felt it did not do justice to the flavour of the fish head. So he experimented with various combinations of masalas till he felt he had got the curry right.

He began serving fish head curry in 1964 or so at the restaurant where he worked. It was so popular that he opened his own place in Singapore’s Little India with fish head curry as the star attraction on the menu. That place was too small to accommodate his growing custom so, in 1969, he shifted to a bigger location.

There are two versions of the origins of the name Muthu’s. The first is simple enough: it was his nickname. The second is more complicated. A customer remarked that the dish was as good as a pearl which apparently yields the name Muthu in Tamil. This then became Ayyakkannu’s nickname and he named his restaurant Muthu’s.

I went to the latest avatar of Muthu’s last Sunday, just before it began serving lunch. Mr Ayyakkannu has passed on but his family still runs the restaurant. His two sons have shown great flair for business and have opened a new branch in Suntec City. Next year, they will open on Orchard Road.

I spent most of the morning filming with Vaishali, the late Mr Ayyakkannu’s daughter-in-law. She grew up in Jamshedpur and says that the first time she set eyes on a fish head curry 13 years ago, she was a little taken aback by the appearance. I told her that I sympathised entirely. I pride myself on not being particularly squeamish but the notion of a curry made entirely of the decapitated heads of blameless fish who had been guillotined for no good reason did not strike me as being particularly appetising.

I was forced to revise my opinion when she actually served me the curry. I had let myself believe that it would consist of lots of small fish heads. In fact, each portion consists of just one large fish which has been bisected around the chest. You can of course go all ethnic and do the whole Chinese thing, scraping out the brains and chewing on the eyeballs, but that’s not really necessary. There is so much normal fish meat in the dish that you don’t actually have to go near the brain, the eyes, the nostrils, the moustache, etc.

In all fairness, I have to say that the fish meat was moist and delicately flavoured. The star of the show, however, was the gravy. It was a typical south Indian fish curry gravy and yet it wasn’t. Obviously, Mr Ayyakkannu’s tweaking of the traditional recipe had worked. My producer, Robin Roy, who as a Bengali knows a thing or two about fish brains, assured me that the point of a fish head is that when you boil it, the most amazing stock results. So it could be that the gravy was a consequence of both the masala mix and the fish head stock.

Vaishali informed me that the exact masala was still a secret. Mr Ayyakkannu passed on the recipe to his two sons and they make up a fresh batch of masala each day. The readymade masala is then given to the cooks. I spoke to one of these cooks, a Mr Pillai, who had worked at Muthu’s for several years. He knew how to make the dish of course, he said, but no, he couldn’t devise the masala mix on his own. Mr Pillai is from India as are all of the cooks at Muthu’s. According to Vaishali, they have experimented with cooks from Singapore but they don’t seem to understand the techniques required. So each time a cook is needed, they fly one in from Tamil Nadu.

Isn’t it odd then that this dish – possibly the most famous south Indian curry in the Far East – should be so little-known in India? You would think that by now restaurants all over India would have started serving it. In fact, I’ve hardly ever seen it on menus.

My guess is that no matter how delicious the gravy, Indians are still put off by the idea of eating a fish head. I know that I was certainly taken aback when I saw the fish, its lips twisted back in a rictus grin, its little teeth glistening in the television lights. Obviously, the Chinese don’t have this problem. And nor do other nationalities.
Muthu’s is packed out with Japanese guests who drink the curry from the bowl as though it were a soup. But on the day I went, something like a third of all guests were local Singapore Indians. And all over Little India you’ll find dozens of restaurants serving some variation of fish head curry (though not made according to the secret Muthu’s recipe) to Tamilians.

So, if Indians can teach themselves to eat fish head curry in Singapore, then why can’t we do the same back home? I guess it’s only a matter of time before some enterprising restaurateur makes fish head curry a specialty. And we close our eyes (even if the fish hasn’t closed its own), taste the delicate flesh and enjoy this astonishingly good gravy.