Malaysian fish curry

Preparation info

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Appears in

Old Food

Old Food

By Jill Dupleix

Published 1998

  • About

If this book was scratch ‘n’ sniff, you’d be rushing off to cook this now, unable to hold out. Known as ikan gulai (ikan is fish and gulai is a thin curry traditionally made by the nonya, the Straits-born women of Malaysia), it’s a spice odyssey through coriander, cumin, fish-loving fennel seed and turmeric, smoothed with coconut milk and soured with tamarind. Bet you can smell it anyway.


  • 500 g (1 lb) firm fish steaks e.g. ling, cod, snapper
  • tbsp tamarind pulp
  • ½ cup boiling water
  • 1 peeled white stalk of lemon grass, sliced
  • 4 dried red chillies, soaked and drained
  • 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 8 shallots or 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp ground fennel
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 6 curry leaves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 cup coconut milk


Remove any skin or bones from fish and cut into bite-sized pieces. Soak tamarind pulp in boiling water and leave for 10 minutes, then knead to dissolve. Strain, and set tamarind water aside.

Grind, pound or blend lemon grass, drained chillies, ginger, garlic and shallots or onion to a paste.

Heat oil in wok or frypan and fry paste for 5 minutes, stirring, until it smells fragrant. Add coriander, cumin, fennel, turmeric, curry leaves, salt and sugar, then slowly add coconut milk, stirring. Bring up to the boil, stirring constantly. Add tamarind water and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens slightly, uncovered. Add fish, and simmer for 3 minutes until just cooked.

Serve with stir-fried green beans or water spinach (kang kong), and lots of rice