Sambal Stingray and Fish-Head Curry
March 1, 2019 6:02 PM   Subscribe

A History of Singapore in Ten Dishes: “Today, tourists from India come to our restaurant and some of them are shocked to see that fish-head curry is on the menu, as the dish does not exist in India,” says Nagajyothi Mahendran, the third-generation owner of Samy’s Curry. Mahendran says her grandfather, M Veerasamy, started cooking the dish in a shophouse—a mixed-use building—in the 1960s. (SL Roads & Kingdoms) posted by frumiousb (22 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Wait, other countries besides Singapore and Malaysia don't have curry puffs, the proper ones?

What is life without Old Chang Kee.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:43 PM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

It lists 10 dishes (including laksa, kacang puteh and bak ku teh) and only acknowledges one dish (sambal stingray) as possibly originating from Malaysia instead? D:

Makes me think of this piece on Singaporean appropriation of Malaysian food.

(I like all the dishes listed but the writer's narrative is a bit problematic.)
posted by aielen at 8:01 PM on March 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Oh good, my favourite topic, nusantara food fights :D :D :D

From the same mag as the FPP though: The History of Penang (Malaysia) in 10 Dishes

aielen, that Rice Mag article prompted a handwringing response (months down the line, in true Malaysian timeliness) about how Malaysians should start taking more initiative because it's not enough tht 'we' know our food/culture is 'better' and I'm like... well, okay, but it's like... it's also part of Singaporean culture, and for sure Singaporeans could do better in being mindful about explaining it all but also I'm like, all that tourism money being poured in and for what, Americans still produced something like Crazy Rich Asians anyway.

(in the meantime, Indonesians, being perennially mad at the two of us, are basically going around the internet staking their sole claim on things like fried rice. there's even a mocking hashtag for it, #doneclaim which riffs on this other bad habit Muslim Southeast Asians like to do, #donedakwah or godbothering people in comments like on instagram posts asking why the person isn't donning the hijab etc)

Still, I try to feel generous and all that, and then BBC runs a copy about how Yee Sang is a Singapore salad, and yes, it's part of Singapore culture now, but it was invented in Seremban (and ok, technically when Singapore was part of Malaysia) and uh, I'll let this guy express my emotions.

But we can all come together and agree, this English chocolatier can go hang for linking durian to domestic abuse in a public awareness campaign that's unfortunately a wee bit racist. (Paul Young later apologised... I mean, it took two tries but let's take it that he did)

I do like this writeup on laksa though, which honoured both countries' heritage.
posted by cendawanita at 8:59 PM on March 1, 2019 [9 favorites]

Makes me think of this piece on Singaporean appropriation of Malaysian food.

Can Singapore really be accused of appropriating Malaysian food when Singapore was part of Malaysia previously, but was kicked out by the 13 other states...

(which is another different can of worms...)
posted by xdvesper at 9:05 PM on March 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

but was kicked out by the 13 other states...

i don't have the citations on hand, but as far as recently declassified or resurfaced records show*, it was a game of political chicken that went wrong**.

(*LKY was actually ready to leave, not finding any prospects in PAP having a KL-bound career, and when Tunku Abdul Rahman put down the ultimatum as a means to bring him in line, he was like, fine. I mean, he WAS sad, but he was ready to explore the option.)

(**mind you, i read about this in more oppositional Singaporean sources soooo)
posted by cendawanita at 9:10 PM on March 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Previously, obligatory *burp*

My mom always said that the singapore hawker food never tasted as tasty as M'sian because it was all mass produced in factories and distributed to food centers
posted by infini at 9:38 PM on March 1, 2019

Fish head curry is served to bride grooms amongst the Bengalis
posted by infini at 9:40 PM on March 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

From the same mag as the FPP though: The History of Penang (Malaysia) in 10 Dishes

Every link is making me hungry, but this one especially.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:45 AM on March 2, 2019

I don't know anything about the cultural stuff regarding Singapore vs. Malaysian food, but I know I really miss the Singapore restaurant that used to be in, of all places, a far-north suburb of St. Paul Minnesota. It was so wonderful and so reliable, and suddenly it closed and I still mourn.

But, on another issue, how does one eat fish-head curry? Specifically, how do you eat the fish heads? Do you pick the meat off them, or crunch them all up, or are they purely decorative (yeah, that makes no sense but I'm trying to cover all the bases). I hope to get the chance to make a fool of myself eating some someday.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:10 AM on March 2, 2019

You eat the eyeballs. That is the most important part.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 7:41 AM on March 2, 2019

I just came back from visiting family in Penang. They live in Pulau Tikus. I love that a place named "Rat Island" has, literally, the best food in the world.
posted by dazed_one at 7:58 AM on March 2, 2019

But the food in Singapore is alright too, I guess.
posted by dazed_one at 7:59 AM on March 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Do you pick the meat off them, or crunch them all up, or are they purely decorative

Yep, just pick any meat off of the bones that you see. The most prized is the cheeks because it's delicate and the eyes for the same though that's more collagen-y. Anything hard is not worth crunching thru. Anything that's done up as curry is bound to be meaty fish heads so there'll be good eating. If you're eating it outside MY/SG, try to ask that you get fork and spoon (a la Thai places) than fork and knife, then you get to properly slurp the curry with the rice/noodles together.
posted by cendawanita at 8:40 AM on March 2, 2019

It wasn't until I landed in the US as a new bride that I realized my mum's careful purchases over the years of Japanese stainless steel flatware had only tablespoons and forks, no knives.
posted by infini at 9:06 AM on March 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

WTF - where's the Char Kway Teow?

I know I really miss the Singapore restaurant that used to be in, of all places, a far-north suburb of St. Paul Minnesota.

The one I miss, my gateway, was the Singapore Cafe in Marina del Rey. It wasn't open very long (late 80s) and I discovered it via an LA Weekly review by Jonathon Gold.
posted by Rash at 9:43 AM on March 2, 2019

I can testify to fish head curry being a thing among Biharis in Delhi (and, by extension, in Bihar). The eyeballs were emphasized, as was the childhood admonition that if you eat fish heads it will make you smart. But AFAIK it is a distinctly unfancy thing, not something I've ever seen in a restaurant or a street cart.
posted by Stilling Still Dreaming at 10:02 AM on March 2, 2019

that reminds me of a KL curry house that was famous for its fish head curry (can confirm, and they were huge), whose name is McCurry... and they got sued by McD's BUT they won.

on the subject of daring, the Singaporean chicken rice stall that got a Michelin star has decided to open an outlet in Ipoh. Context: Ipoh is one of THE places for chicken rice and other dishes, partly because of the home grown bean sprouts and the water (it's surrounded by limestone hills). So, for a Singaporean hawker to decide to throw down the gauntlet in Ipoh truly takes some brass ones, imo. but maybe it means they can attract all the visiting Singaporeans, so the locals can get a seat in a kopitiam for once. Of course it turns out the Singaporean hawker is originally from Ipoh, maybe that's why his stall is so good. *running away emoji*
posted by cendawanita at 11:11 AM on March 2, 2019 [3 favorites]

So, I might have been listening to too many New Naratif podcasts, but recently I've come to the conclusion that the distinction between Singapore and Malaysia is almost totally political, with no actual bearing on the culture of the two countries.

As this particular podcast (with transcript) describes, for most of the its history, Singapore the city had always been a member of the Straits Settlements, and part of the greater region known as Malaya (also Nusantara as cendawanita mentioned). It only became seen as a separate entity when the British partitioned the Straits Settlements to form the Crown Colony of Singapore and the Malayan Union. In the podcast, PJ Thum alleges the main reason for the partition was for political reasons, to separate Chinese-majority Singapore from Malay-majority peninsular Malaya; not unlike the other partitions performed on other British colonies at the time. Culturally, however, Singapore was very much connected to the rest of what is now Malaysia. There was a lot of movement between the two. Indeed many Singaporeans have relatives living in Malaysia, and vice versa.

When it comes to food culture, the interconnections are similarly deep. The same kinds of foods are eaten throughout the Malayan region. As such there isn't really much of a point in arguing about which dish belongs to who; they are all dishes from this part of the world. Sure, it can be fun and a bit of harmless patriotism, but we need to remember at the end of the day it doesn't really matter. It's like arguing if New York-style pizza "belongs" to Manhattan or Queens.

Of course, this is beginning to be less so in recent years, because it's been 50-odd years since separation and the two countries have began to diverge culturally in some ways. But if we're talking about chicken rice and bak kut teh, those are things that originated way back when the two countries were just part of Malaya.
posted by destrius at 9:06 PM on March 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

I'm thankful my mum was experimental and curious of new foods, as a twenty something when she brought us to M'sia to join dad. We used to pick up chicken rice for $1, enough for the three of us (we were in kindergarten) on the way back from school.
posted by infini at 10:34 PM on March 2, 2019

Ok, *now* I'm pining to be back in Penang. Sigh. The food is amazing.
posted by world wide woman at 11:18 AM on March 3, 2019

4 Reasons Why Laksa is one of the Most Remarkable Dishes on Earth

I really appreciate how this article gets into the southeast asian-ness of this dish, how it wouldn't be possible without all that cultural intermingling. Also:

R. J. Wilkinson’s 1901 dictionary, A Malay-English Dictionary claims that the word means ten-thousand in Sanskrit. In the Persian language, it is a type of vermicelli and if one adds a 'H' to spell Laksha, it would mean 'slippery' - another term for noodles.

Curiously, other countries that were connected via the Silk Road also have similar sounding words for their noodles. Here are some: Lapsha (Russia), Laghman (Uyghur), Lokshen (Israel), Lakhchak (Afghanistan), Lakštiniai (Lithuania), Lokshina (Ukraine), and yes, Lasagne (Italy).

posted by cendawanita at 6:58 PM on March 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I get Prima Taste supplies to hide at the top of the kitchen cupboard
posted by infini at 10:33 PM on March 6, 2019

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