Fish Head Assam Curry

Fish Head Assam Curry
Fish Head Assam Curry

After a week in Paris, I’ve been pretty unmotivated to eat London’s distinctly average and overpriced restaurant food (with some very honourable exceptions). So after a few days of Vietnamese, Khmer, and Thai cooking, I remembered this dish, from Samy’s curry house in Singapore (a less good, but more entertaining, version is served at the Apollo Banana Leaf next to the coolie brothels on Race Course Road). The name “Assam” actually has nothing to do with the Indian state, and rather is the Malay word for “sour” and refers to the tamarind that gives the curry its distinctive sour note. The vegetables and the fish head give the dish a considerable complexity that’s distinct from similar Thai dishes, and also from the antecedent Indian (Bengali and Keralan) fish curries.

Delicious stuff for the summer, and if you have a decent fishmonger, there’s a good chance he’ll have salmon or cod heads going to waste (mine gives them away).

In the event, I used a gurnard and a mackerel, the former for its pretty looks and texture, and the latter because it’s cheap and fantastically fresh in the UK. Take care with the gurnard, it has sharp, hard bones, long painful dorsal and mandibular spines, as well as a sandpaper-like ridge on its skin, none of which soften with cooking and need to be removed carefully from the filets – on balance more trouble than it’s worth. The mackerel was perfect, and if you’re feeling flush, a red mullet would probably be awesome.

Mackerel and gurnard making friends.  Note his sharp elbows...
Mackerel and gurnard making friends. Note his sharp elbows…

Start by putting the fish carcase(s) in a steamer with a little water and lots of sliced or mashed ginger. Steaming the head and bones, with ginger, removes any odd smell (there shouldn’t really be any if the fish are fresh) and effectively makes a stock. Steam for 10 minutes, and retain stock and bones, discarding the ginger.

Rempah paste
Rempah paste

In a mortar and pestle, grind together the paste (rempah): 4 fresh red chili, 4-5 dried red chili (remove the seeds if you can be bothered), 5 cloves of garlic, 4-5 small Thai shallots (or normal shallots or just a red onion), 2 stalks of lemongrass, 4cm of ginger, 1tbsp of shrimp paste (can find this in Asian supermarkets, I tend to use a less pungent Thai one, but the correct one to use would be belachan, a Malay variety)and a half teaspoon of turmeric powder. I also put in 10 sichuan peppercorns for fun, but they are not part of the canonical recipe, and may not make a big difference.

Veg for the curry.  Long aubergines best...
Veg for the curry. Long aubergines best…

Heat some oil in a pan (I used mustard but olive or vegetable are fine) on medium heat, and chuck in the rempah, let it fry until fragrant and well-mixed with the oil. At this point, I added a few small pieces of a Bangladeshi vegetable called shatkora, which is a little like a lemon (yet has no juice and is used mainly as a cooking ingredient for the scent in the peel and rind). I also added 2 star anise, 4 cloves, 4-5 kaffir lime leaves, 5-6 curry leaves, and let this all fry for a minute or so, stirring constantly. Add about 2-3 tbsp of curry powder, preferably home-made (recipe here:, and mix everything.

Paste, coconut milk, and fish stock
Paste, coconut milk, and fish stock

Now add about 60-120ml of light coconut milk (depending on your taste for grease!), wait for the milk to bubble, and then the fish-head stock. Then add some water (depending on how “wet” you want the curry to be), and again let it bubble. Add 5-6 okras, a handful of green beans, 1-2 skinned tomatoes, and a long eggplant (look for the Indian, Chinese, or Thai types, rather than the fat Turkish type which doesn’t seem to cook as well). Add a tiny bit of sugar, and at this point I put in quite a bit of tamarind (having previously soaked the paste in warm water, and strained to remove pips and fibre) juice. The idea is to get a sourness to balance the pungency of the rempah, and richness of the sauce, while in no way overpowering the umami that comes from the fish stock nor adding a particular sweet tone (i.e. this is not a Vietnamese sweet and sour fish soup). I also tend to cut the okras at this point, so that the sticky liquid inside comes out and adds body to the sauce.

IMG_3854 IMG_3856

When the vegetables are tender, put in the fish head (if not the bones), and the filets of fish, let it all simmer on a medium-low heat until the fish are done. Let sit for 2-3 hours for the flavours to meld. Serve with white rice. Just mind the eyeballs.

Mango Soup

Even in this grim spring, cold, damp and windy, one of the best things about London, owing to the large South Asian population, is the solid 4 months of mango season. Starting in mid-May and going to mid-September, we get a variety of (Indian/Pakistani) mangoes, mainly in Bethnal Green Road and Whitechapel Road, but probably also in Wembley/Southall and perhaps Edgeware Road. In Afro-Caribbean markets (Ridley Road or Deptford), one can find Dominican mangoes. Supermarkets also carry them at inflated prices.


Prices and varieties change – last few weeks we’ve had both Alphonso and Kesar, the former very aromatic, if less sweet, than the latter. The sweetest and most intense fruit is nearer the end of the season. Prices are between £5-7 for a box (usually 6-9), and I’d guess Whitechapel Road is a bit cheaper owing to the 7-10 mango sellers lined up on either side of the Tube entrance.


Besides the obvious tactic of eating them, unadorned, in all their messy glory, I find them lovely in a sort of porridge. The richness is cut by the blandness of oats and milk. In India, I think this is made with rice (boiled or puffed) and milk, but that’s probably a bit too diabetic for my taste.


Mango after softening up
Mango after softening up

It’s fairly messy to make….I literally have taken to preparing it before the morning shower, not least because the oats need a little time to soak. Start with a ripe mango (usually will be yielding, but not overly so, with a fine perfume and perhaps some juices leaking out of the stem end). Starting at the stem end, gently press the skin, working your way around in a spiral towards the other end, softening the fruit up. Basically the juices are being liberated from the fibre and pulp.


Once the mango has been softened up, make an incision just below the point where the stem joins the fruit. Best to keep the incision small, as it’ll eventually expand, and at some point, the stone with pop out, making a mess.


Having previously poured oats and milk into a bowl (NB: in the pictures, I also have muesli and linseeds in my mix, which I don’t recommend as it detracts from the flavour and texture), start squeezing the juice of the mango out through the little hole. Best to work from the stem end, gently, going towards the other end. If little bits of fibre and pulp start coming out, that’s fine: just place the whole fruit on a plate, cut them off and put them in the oats and milk.


Once the mango is emptied of juice, the squeamish can stop and set to eating. However, I prefer to cut the mango open, place it on a plate, scrape the fibre/pulp off the skin, and in the messiest bit of all, carefully scrape/cut pulp and fibre from the stone (which is well slippery), and then dispose of stone and skin, putting the juice/fibre/pulp into the bowl.


The professional last step - stripping the fruit of pulp....
The professional last step – stripping the fruit of pulp….

Stir and eat (or let it sit for 20 minutes to absorb into the oats). Wash dishes, hands and face immediately.

Breakfast of (diabetic) champions....
Breakfast of (diabetic) champions….

Flu Fighter: Scare the Bug Away With Rasam

Flu, particularly the gender-specific variety known as “man-flu” is ghastly: in between reaching for the snot rag and groaning feebly, I remembered the South Indian soup rasam. It’s pretty humble stuff and definitely not hipster fare, really not much more than tamarind water, perhaps with tomato, chili, spices, lentils, and/or vegetables in it. But in these dark times, it’s awesome for clearing sinuses and generally making one feel alive again.

Vary amounts as you like – I personally prefer an intense mix of chili heat, sourness and garlicky. This is sized for 1 generous portion, and is the simplest variation.

Put a golf-ball size lump of tamarind pulp into a teacup of hot water, stir it so the water eventually goes brown, and try to liberate the tamarind husks from the hard shiny seeds. Discard the seeds once the husks have separated from them.

Brown 2-3 red dried chilis in an un-oiled pan. Put the browned chili in a mortar, pound into a paste with 1/8 tsp cumin seeds, 3/4 tbsp coriander seeds, 3 garlic cloves, 5 black peppercorns. Add a tbsp of water to help it along.

Paste of garlic, coriander, chili, cumin
Paste of garlic, coriander, chili, cumin

Heat a little oil in a pot, and chuck in the paste, let it get aromatic over a medium heat. Put in 1-2 large, or 10 cherry (my preference, at least out of season), tomatoes, previously chopped up (if using large, remove the skins by dipping a scored tomato in boiling water). Let cook for a minute, then add the tamarind water and husks.

Add 200ml of water (more or less, depending on how strong a flavour you want). Grate in 1cm of ginger, and add a bunch of coriander leaves. I also put in 1-2 green chilis, cut lengthwise. Bring to boil, then turn down heat and simmer for 7-10 minutes. Add salt if required. Put in a pinch of asafoetida powder (not essential).

Traditionally this is served with rice, but I just drank it on its own to clear my head.


Seafood and pumpkin curry

It turns out the Cucurbitae, or members of the squash/marrow/pumpkin family, make great friends with seafood, particularly prawns. In many cases, like butternut squash or pumpkins, the flesh is naturally sweet and colourful, and has a tendency to collapse under cooking, giving great texture. The flavours match the prawn’s own sweetness.

I use a mix of prawns and white fish (cod, hake, cod cheeks, etc.) for variety and not have an over-rich dish.


Start by marinating the prawns, shells, antennae, alimentary canal and legs removed, but with the heads retained (being careful to not lose any of the red stuff). I use ½ tsp of turmeric, 1/8 tsp of crushed cumin seeds, and a crushed/grated mix of ¼ small onion, 1cm ginger, 1-2 garlic cloves, a bit of salt, a bit of lemon juice. This is for 2-4 prawns, and about 200g of white fish. I tend to use less spice/alliums to not overpower the prawns sweetness, so feel free to experiment.


Chop up the squash into 5cm square chunks, and if using the skin (which I do), pressure cook briefly until the skin is soft. Chop up rest of the onion, and soften on moderate heat with 1-2 dried chili, 1cm grated ginger, 1 clove sliced garlic (add garlic last to avoid burning). When onions are soft, drop in the squash, and crush a bit. Add a little water. Once that has mixed nicely, I put in the white fish (not the prawns) and as much of the marinade as I can scoop up and let that cook. After 1 minute, drop in the prawn heads and crush to flavour the sauce. Don’t worry if the white fish breaks up, it should form a melange with the bits of squash.

Taste the sauce – check for sweetness balanced by salt and sour. It might be light on the sour, so I add either a little chopped tomato or (real tomatoes being out of season and the Dutch mutants we get woeful) a bit (capful) of white wine or sherry vinegar and let the “vinegariness” burn off. When the fish is mostly done, drop in the prawn bodies, and cook – do not overcook.


Take off heat, and throw in a little chopped coriander, and chopped green chilis.

Serve with steamed white rice.

Wine: I drank it with a (nice, from 259 Hackney Road) beaujolais nouveau. I find the gamay grape to work surprisingly well with spicy food. A more conventional red choice (if such exists) would be pinot noir. Safest is a riesling.

Mum’s Meat Marinade Mix


This was originally developed for marinated/cooking lamb, but I find it works well for chicken. Haven’t tried on beef, duck or pork, but don’t see why it shouldn’t work. It is a pretty amazing compendium of the whole spice route – everything from the spices of eastern India, to those we find more in Pakistani/Mughlai food, to those that are prominent in Thai food (likely due to influence of Indian traders).

Anyway, use measurements under caution – mum rarely knows exactly what she puts into the mix, and it’s different in each batch. There are also a few unidentified ingredients, that when I finally make a batch for myself I will track down. The measurements are given as volume proportions (ie relative to any one ingredient), rather than weights. The picture is the most useful thing here IMHO.

Crush the following in a spice grinder, or on a grind-stone (sheel). I doubt mortar and pestle will work well.

1 part white peppercorn

0.75 parts black peppercorn

1.5 parts cumin seed

1.5 parts coriander seed

2 parts dried chili

0.25 parts whole nutmeg

0.125 parts green cardamom

0.1 parts black cardamom

0.1 parts clove

0.05 parts cinnamon

0.5 star anise

a tiny amount of an unidentified white ball (see the picture)

a tiny amount of an orange coloured dried substance that looks a little like dried mango (but isn’t)

Put in an airtight container, will keep for months