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Fish head curry (Gulai kepala ikan)

Australian Gourmet Traveller Malaysian banquet recipe for fish head curry (gulai kepala ikan)

By Tony Tan
  • Serves 6
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Fish head curry (Gulai kepala ikan)
One of the most recognised Malaysian dishes, it's thought to have been created by a Southern Indian cook in the 50s in Singapore. Although many find the idea of eating fish heads confronting, the tender cheeks are quite irresistible and you'll adore the flavours of the curry leaves mingled with lemongrass. Fish fillet works well, too.


  • 1.5 kg fish head, preferably snapper
  • 60 ml vegetable oil (¼ cup)
  • ¼ tsp black mustard seeds
  • 50 curry leaves (see note)
  • ¼ tsp fenugreek seeds
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, outer leaves removed, white part only, bruised
  • 1 star anise
  • 30 gm Malaysian fish curry powder (see note) (¼ cup)
  • 2½ tbsp tamarind pulp, soaked in 2 cups of warm water
  • 500 ml light coconut milk (2 cups)
  • 5 small okra
  • 2 Japanese eggplants, cut into wedges
  • 1 vine-ripened tomato, cut into wedges
Spice paste
  • 5 dried long red chillies, soaked in boiling water until soft, drained
  • 2 fresh long red chillies, seeds removed and coarsely chopped
  • 5 red shallots, thinly sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 cm piece turmeric, thinly sliced
  • 2 cm piece galangal, coarsely chopped
  • 5 cm piece ginger, coarsely chopped
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, thinly sliced


  • 1
    Rinse fish head in cold water, season with 1 tsp of salt, stand for 20 minutes and wash off salt just before cooking.
  • 2
    For spice paste, process ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
  • 3
    Heat oil in a large wok or pan over medium-high heat and fry mustard seeds until they pop, add curry leaves and fenugreek seeds, stir for a few seconds, then add spice paste, lemongrass and star anise. Cook over low-medium heat, stirring frequently, for 3-5 minutes or until fragrant and oil separates. Add curry powder and stir for another 2 minutes. Strain tamarind mixture into pan, discarding solids, add coconut milk and bring to the boil, stirring continuously.
  • 4
    Place fish head into sauce, reduce heat to low and gently simmer for 8-10 minutes or until fish is almost cooked. Add okra and eggplant, then simmer for another 3-5 minutes or until soft. Season to taste with white sugar and salt, add tomato and serve immediately with rice passed separately.


Note Use fresh not dried curry leaves. Dried leaves don't have the distinctive fragrance that is essential to the dish. Available from select green grocers and supermarkets. Fish curry powder is made with coriander, fennel, fenugreek and cumin seeds, black peppercorns, turmeric powder and roasted dried chillies. Alagappa's and Cap Burong Nuri are the best. Available from Asian food stores.
Drink Suggestion: Ripe, rich, late-harvested pinot gris. Drink suggestion by Max Allen

  • undefined: Tony Tan