Learn how to make an authentic Malaysian Straits Chinese fish curry called “gulai tumis hu” by making your own curry spice paste. This is a classic Nyonya dish, a type of Malaysian cuisine, that can be easily made at home. It is one of the most popular and an all-time family favourites among the Straits Chinese, “Peranakan”.
In my previous post, I have talked briefly about the Straits Chinese “Peranakan” and Nyonya food, and also posted a video on how to toast the “belachan” (Malaysian shrimp paste). If you have missed that post or video, you can still catch up HERE.
In this classic fish curry dish, which I have learnt from my mother and she learnt from my paternal grandmother who was a Nyonya, it may vary slightly from other family’s home recipes. Traditionally It uses the same basic ingredients, such as, chilies for the spiciness and colour, turmeric for its mild flavour but mostly for its bright orange, yellow colour (it has good health benefits), lemongrass for its sharp, citrusy flavour, french shallots or onions, and garlic. The most important ingredient in Nyonya cooking is the toasted belachan. It is almost an essential ingredients in most of Nyonya dishes, and this Nyonya fish curry will not be the same without the toasted belachan. One other ingredient that may be used depending on a family secret is “galangal” or blue ginger. In my family, we don’t use galangal in a fish dish, but more on a meat dish. A fish dish needs have a mild, delicate and sweet flavour. Lastly, in a Nyonya dish, “bunga kantan” or torch ginger flower is used in some of its dishes to give the dish an aromatic, distinctive floral-like scent with an interesting taste of a mild sweetness. This lovely pinkish flower bud is commonly available in Malaysia, but very difficult to find in western countries. However, if you do find it, you must try it at least once. Below is a picture of a frozen ginger flower bud that I managed to find at an Asian supermarket here in Melbourne, Australia.
Let me explain the meaning of the word “Gulai tumis hu” pronounced in Penang Hokkien, which is a local Chinese dialect. It literally means “curry fry fish”. “Gulai” which is actually a Malay word means “curry”. “Tumis” also a Malay word means “frying”. And, “Hu” which is a Penang Hokkien word means “fish”. In Penang Hokkien, the dialect “hokkien” which comes from Fukienese (from Fujian province, China) has been localised using some Malay words in the Straits Chinese daily spoken dialect. This is another example of the Peranakan Chinese culture in Penang, Malaysia, an intermarriage culture of Sino-Malay back in the early 15th century.
- roughly 400-500 gm fish fillet or whole fish (white fish preferred in this recipe)
- tamarind pulp (to extract the natural tamarind juice or water)
- optional: 1 torch ginger flower (bunga kantan in Malay). If not available, you can substitute using vietnamese mint (daun kesum in Malay) or normal mint. You only need to use 2 sprigs of mint leaves (1 to cook, the other 1 to garnish). A sprig may have 4-8 leaves. Do not use too much or it may overpower your curry spices
- salt and sugar (use either brown sugar or palm sugar adjust to your own taste)
- to make the CURRY SPICE PASTE (REMPAH in Malay), you will need the following ingredients:
- 3 fresh long red chilies (or more if you prefer a more reddish colour in your curry sauce)
- 10 dried red chilies (or more if you prefer your curry sauce to be spicier)
- 5 garlic cloves
- 3 lemongrass stalks
- 8 french shallots (medium size)
- 2 pieces of fresh/frozen turmeric about 2-3 inches in length (or 1 full teaspoon turmeric ground if you can’t find the fresh turmeric)
- 1 teaspoon toasted shrimp paste (belachan)
- Soak dried chilies in hot water, no less than 30 minutes
- Soak tamarind pulp (roughly about a large knob) in hot water, no less than 30 minutes
- Cut the torch ginger flower into half lengthwise and then slice thinly diagonally. Set aside. If you are using mint, remove the leaves and set aside
- Roughly chop/cut all the curry spice ingredients – french shallots, garlic, lemongrass, fresh red chilies, turmeric. Place the cut ingredients with the soaked dried chilies (without the water), 1 teaspoon toasted belachan and a bit of cooking oil (to help the blade spins better) in the blender container and blend into a smooth paste
- Heat up a cup of cooking oil in a medium heated pan. Once the oil warms up, toss in the blended curry paste. Stir fry for 3-5 minutes. Watch that it doesn’t dry up. If it looks like it is starting to dry up, add 1 cup water (from the blending container to use up the remaining paste you couldn’t scoop out). Continue to fry for another 5 minutes
- Next add the tamarind juice/water. Mix through
- Add the sliced torch ginger flower or mint leaves (leave some to garnish at the end of cooking). Mix through
- Add 1/2 teaspoon salt and 2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste). If not sweet enough, add another tablespoon sugar. Mix through and taste. This curry is a sweet, sour and spicy dish
- Lastly, add the fish and cook. The timing to cook fish depends on the size and type of fish, and the heat you have on the pan
- Once fish is cook, remove and plate with some of the curry sauce
- Garnish with the remaining sliced torch ginger flower or mint leaves