There are overcast, dripping days when nothing but a piping hot claypot of fish head curry will do. One such recent Sunday, we strike out for Subang Jaya's Ah Lye Curry Fish Head.
The shop was opened seven years ago by the son of the owner of the twenty-year-old original Ah Lye, in Taiping. He manages the dining room while his wife does much of the cooking, with the help of a couple kitchen staff.
We arrive about fifteen minutes before opening, as the seafood delivery man is just waking up from a nap at a rear table. He points us to a few tubs out the back of the restaurant, where we check out the day's order. The seafood is spanking fresh, fish plump, bright-eyed and red-gilled and prawns perky and firm-headed. The lot smells of nothing but salt water.
The small kitchen is suffused with aromas emanating from two pots of curry that have been bubbling away since wee hours. An order of fish head curry starts with a few ladles of the elixir, which are transferred to a claypot.
A fish head is hacked apart and added to the curry, and the pot is set over a low flame. Mrs. Ah Lye keeps watch to insure that the curry comes to a brisk simmer but doesn't stray into a full-on boil.
Lady fingers (okra) are added before the fish is fully cooked and simmered to crisp tenderness. Curry-absorbant deep-fried tofu puffs go in last. The pot is delivered to the table with contents still bubbling, and waiting for the curry to cool while inhaling its steam is torture - but a torture well-compensated for by the dish's slow-burn chile heat, coconuty richness, and hint of sour. We're not at all averse to fish head, but aren't quite the bone pickers that our Malaysian friends are. Yet we find more than enough meat on these bones - even without resorting to sucking - to satisfy.
Though named for its curry, Ah Lye is also known for its assam (sour) prawns. This is a 'wet' version of the dish (dry versions feature prawns marinated in tamarind and spices and then deep-fried) and it's no less than stupendous - more noteworthy, perhaps, than even the fish head curry.
The large prawns arrive coated in a gorgeous glossy, mahogany colored tamarind sauce that, while thick, is neither sticky nor gloppy. If its bright, strident sourness didn't tell you that the dish is made with tamarind pulp, not concentrate, the seeds would. Lots of black pepper balances tartness with heat, and the shellfish themselves are expertly cooked - toothsome, almost crispy, their heads oozing savory juices.
Ah Lye seems to have a way with anything remotely fish-related. The kangkong belacan (water spinach stir-fried with chilies and shrimp paste) is fragrantly zesty and studded with yet more prawns. Taugeh (bean sprouts), stir-fried with scallion greens and small shrimp, feature lovely little nubs of salted fish.
Tucked amongst a row of shophouses on a short, out-of-the-way sidestreet, Ah Lye is easy to miss. In fact, unless you know about the place it's unlikely you'll ever have reason to visit this neighborhood at all. But regulars find their way here for the curry, the prawns, and non-fishy specials like salt-baked chicken.
Freshest ingredients, careful preparation, and big smiles in the kitchen. Ah Lye is a bit out of the way, but worth the trip. We'll be back.
Thanks to C for showing Dave the way to this place.
Ah Lye Curry Fish Head, 18 Jalan SS 19/1G, Subang Jaya. Tel. 03-5638-0468/5634-9692. 12-3pm and 5-10pm. About 32 ringgit for curry, prawns, kangkong, taugeh, rice for two, and drinks.