Fish head curry

Fish head curry

Gulai kepala ikan

Street Food Asia
4 a s part o f a shared me al
Alan Benson

As I kick around Jakarta, where I discover foods from all over Indonesia, one cuisine I really enjoy is Sundanese. It’s from the western part of Java and the way they eat there is to sit down to basically a smorgasbord of pre-cooked dishes. A typical meal has a huge variety of vegetable, meat and fish options, with plenty of rice and herbs too. Little hole-in-the-walls and even street vendors specialise in this cuisine, serving so many choices it’s mind-boggling. Curries, steamed dishes, deep-fried goodies; they’re all here and you just pile your plate with whatever catches your fancy. It’s all so appetising and the little place I really love is one that makes me feel like I’m in Morocco. Pyramids of plates piled high with food; everyone eating with their hands; an incredibly warm vibe... it honestly feels like North Africa. One of my Sundanese favourites is this fish head curry. It’s not overly heavy, or terribly spicy, but it’s a perfect example of the way Indonesians balance flavour so well. Oh, and don’t be nervous about the idea of fish heads. There’s loads of lovely meaty bits and wonderful flavour in them and sucking all of this out is a great way to eat. And then there’s all that tasty, curried gravy...


Quantity Ingredient
2 x 500g snapper heads or other fish heads such as salmon, cod or grouper
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 lime, juiced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, (with the seeds; not tamarind puree)
3 fresh bay leaves
4 fresh curry leaves
2 lemongrass stems, bruised, white part only
5cm piece of galangal, peeled and diced
5cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled and diced
500ml coconut milk steamed jasmine rice, to serve

Spice paste

Quantity Ingredient
8 red asian shallots, sliced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
5 red chillies, sliced
1 tomato, diced
3cm piece of turmeric, peeled and sliced
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar


  1. Place the fish heads in a bowl with the sea salt and lime juice. Mix together well, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, make the spice paste. Pound all of the ingredients into a fine paste using a pestle and mortar.
  3. Drain and discard the liquid from the fish heads. Set aside.
  4. Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or saucepan over a low–medium heat. Add the spice paste and sauté for 5 minutes until fragrant. Add the tamarind, bay leaves, curry leaves, lemongrass, galangal and ginger and sauté for a further 2 minutes.
  5. Add the fish heads, coconut milk and 500 ml water to the wok, bring to a simmer and cook for 12–15 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by half and the oils are visible on the surface. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.
South-East Asian
Street Food
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