The man behind fish head curry

Today, fish head curry has an iconic status in Singapore and various versions of it have been created. Mr M.J. Gomez with his wife Mariyamma, daughter Philomena and son John in a photograph taken in Singapore before the family returned to India in th
Mr M.J. Gomez with his wife Mariyamma, daughter Philomena and son John in a photograph taken in Singapore before the family returned to India in the 1960s.PHOTO: COURTESY OF DESMOND GOMEZ
Today, fish head curry has an iconic status in Singapore and various versions of it have been created. Mr M.J. Gomez with his wife Mariyamma, daughter Philomena and son John in a photograph taken in Singapore before the family returned to India in th
Today, fish head curry has an iconic status in Singapore and various versions of it have been created. PHOTO: ONE OCEAN RESTAURANT

M.J. Gomez was an enigma till social media led to the retelling of his story

While many have savoured the fish head curry dish in food-obsessed Singapore, the man often credited with its creation has always been a bit of an enigma.

Just who was Mr M.J. Gomez? And where did he disappear to?

The quest to hunt down Mr Gomez started in 2010 but hit a roadblock soon after. All that was known was that he had given up his business and returned to his native Kerala in the 1960s.

Then came a post on Facebook last year with a photograph of Mr Gomez and a brief description of the fish head curry he had created. The trail soon led to Mr Gomez's grandson Desmond, a dental surgeon working in Bahrain. His father, Dr John Gomez, was then working in Muscat, Oman.

It turned out that Mr Gomez, on his return to India in the 1960s, had settled in my ancestral hometown, Kollam, and had lived there till he died in 1974.

Dr John Gomez shared his father's story in an interview in Kollam. Mr Marian Jacob Gomez, the eldest of seven children, started working at the age of 17, after his father died.

He came to Singapore from Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala, in the 1930s before returning to get married. After the birth of his first child, a daughter, he returned to Singapore, only to get caught here during the war. When the war ended, Mr Gomez went back and spent a few years in India. That was when his son John was born.

Mr Gomez then came to Singapore again, and later brought his family over. They lived in Sophia Road, where he started his restaurant, Gomez Curry, which later moved to nearby Selegie Road.

Mr Gomez, known for his spicy dishes, came up with an idea to make fish curry more appealing to Chinese customers. "Fish head was not particularly an Indian delicacy. Understanding it to be a favourite with the Chinese, Gomez tried this dish to please his Chinese customers," says the National Library Board's Infopedia website.

It clicked, eventually leading to various versions of the dish and its iconic status today.

"Every morning my father would go to the market to buy fish," said Dr John Gomez. "He had a trusted trishaw man, known as KT. They would have a kopi-O together every day when they went to the market." It was also KT's routine to take the young John daily to St Michael's Primary School.

Dr John Gomez, now 70, said the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew dropped by one day to taste his dad's fish head curry and his "face turned red after he had the spicy curry".

In 1964, Mr Gomez left Singapore for good, returning to Kollam, where his sisters had settled. The town is about 65km from Trivandrum. According to Dr John Gomez, before leaving, his father entrusted his restaurant to KT, the trishaw man; Rocky, the waiter in the restaurant; and Sebastian, the cook. They ran it under the Gomez Curry name for some years, but eventually it closed down.

Dr John Gomez said his father did not start any other restaurant and simply led a quiet retired life in Kollam. He died of a heart attack at the age of 67. Nine years later, his wife Mariyamma died. And not long after that, his daughter also died.

Dr John Gomez said that towards the end, his father was a bit disappointed the three people he had handed over his restaurant to did not get in touch with him later.

Mr Gomez never knew that his dish would outlive them all and become a treasured part of Singapore heritage.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'The Man Behind Fish Head Curry'. Print Edition | Subscribe