background image

Man who 

created 

fish head 

curry

He created a Singapore icon... The late Mr M.J. Gomez (left) with wife Mariyamma in 

a photograph taken in Singapore and (above right) Mr Gomez with his wife, daughter 

Philomena and son John in a photograph taken in Singapore before the family returned 

to India.

P

H

O

T

O

S

 

C

O

U

R

T

E

S

Y

 

O

F

 

D

E

S

M

O

N

D

 

G

O

M

E

Z

tabla

!

 tracks down the family 

of M.J. Gomez in Kerala

PATRICK JONAS

A

LMOST everyone in Sin-

gapore would have heard 

of fish head curry, and a 

great many have eaten it. 

A few may know that an In-

dian man named M.J. Gomez is 

credited with having created the 

spicy dish.

 But almost no one here seems 

to know anything about him.

tabla

!

 tracked down and met 

his son John in India (see other 

report) to find out more about 

the man, his family and their life 

here.

Marian Jacob Gomez, the el-

dest of seven children, started 

working at the age of 17, after 

his father died. 

He came to Singapore from 

Trivandrum, the capital of Kera-

la, in the 1930s.

He went back after a while and 

got married there. 

After the birth of his first child, 

a daughter, he came back to Sin-

gapore, only to get caught here 

during the war.

For seven years he was cut off 

from his family. 

When the war ended, Mr Go-

mez went back and spent a few 

years in India. 

That was when his son John 

was born.

Mr Gomez then came to Singa-

pore again, and later brought his 

family over.

They lived in Sophia Road, 

where he started his restaurant, 

Gomez Curry. 

It later moved to Selegie Road 

nearby.

It was a humble place with 

simple wooden furniture, but 

old-timers say the food was so 

good people would even squat 

outside to eat.

Mr Gomez was known for his 

spicy dishes, and before long 

came up with an idea to make 

fish curry more appealing to Chi-

nese customers.

“Fish head was not particu-

larly an Indian delicacy. Under-

standing it to be a 

favourite with the 

Chinese, Gomez 

tried this dish to 

please his Chi-

nese customers,” 

says the National 

Library Board’s 

Infopedia web-

site.

It clicked, even-

tually leading to 

various versions 

of the dish and 

its iconic status 

today.

His son, who 

went on to become a doctor, 

clearly remembers those times 

here, in the 1950s. 

“Every morning my father 

would go to the market to buy 

fish,” said Dr John Gomez.

“He had a trusted tri-shaw 

man, known as KT. They would 

have a kopi-O together every 

day when they went to the mar-

ket.”

It was also KT’s routine to take 

the young John daily to St Mi-

chael’s primary school.

Dr John, now 70, said the late 

Mr Lee Kuan Yew dropped by 

one day to taste his dad’s fish 

head curry. 

He clearly remembers how Mr 

Lee’s “face turned red after he 

had the spicy curry”.

He also remembers that his 

ambition in those days was to 

become Mr Lee’s bodyguard.

When his PSLE results came in 

1960, he was offered admission 

in Raffles Institution. 

But Mr Gomez had 

by then made up his 

mind to relocate his 

family to India.

As a first step, he 

sent John back with his 

mother. 

Mr Gomez had 

bought land in the 

town of Kollam, where 

his sisters had settled. 

The town, about 

65km from Trivan-

drum, also had good 

E n g l i s h - m e d i u m 

schools and John start-

ed secondary school in one of 

them.

His sister Philomena stayed 

back with their father in Singa-

pore because she was in the final 

year of secondary school here. 

She returned to India later.

In 1964, Mr Gomez left Singa-

pore for good. 

According to Dr John, before 

leaving, his father entrusted his 

restaurant to three people who 

were close to him. 

They were KT, the trishaw 

man; Rocky, the waiter in the 

restaurant; and Sebastian, the 

cook.

They ran the restaurant un-

der the Gomez Curry name for 

some years, but eventually it 

closed down.

There has been speculation 

that Mr Gomez took his dish 

back to Kerala and introduced it 

there. 

But Dr John denied this.

He said his father did not start 

any other restaurant and simply 

led a quiet retired life in Kollam.

Mr Gomez, who used to smoke 

heavily, died of a heart attack in 

1974, at the age of 67.

 Nine years later, his wife Mari-

yamma died.

And not long after that, his 

daughter also died.

Dr John, who is 

married to a 

home-mak-

er, has two 

sons and a 

daughter, 

all grown 

up and 

wo rk i n g 

elsewhere. 

But the 

family home is 

still in Kollam.

He said that towards the 

end, his father was a bit dis-

appointed that the three he had 

handed over his restaurant to did 

not get in touch with him later, 

and he did not make anything 

more from it.

Mr Gomez never knew that his 

dish would outlive them all and 

become a treasured part of Sin-

gapore heritage.

➥ 

patrickj@sph.com.sg

On the 

trail 

of M.J. 

Gomez

Fond memories of dad... Dr John 

Gomez (above right) with son 

Desmond.  

How a Facebook 

post led 

tabla

!

 to 

the Gomez family 

in Kerala

MY QUEST to know more about the 

man who created the fish head curry 

started in 2010. 

While doing research for a story on 

Indian restaurants in Singapore, I came 

across the name M.J. Gomez, credited 

with creating the dish in the 1950s.

I spoke to several elderly Indians, 

who I thought would be able to throw 

some light on Mr Gomez.

Most had heard of him, and some 

had eaten at his restaurant. But they 

knew very little about the man.

All that was known was that he had 

given up his business and returned to 

his native Kerala in the 1960s.

After he left, a few others continued 

running the restaurant under the same 

name but they did not last long.

As Mr Gomez vanished into the mists 

of time, the dish he created took on 

a life of its own and 

several restaurants 

started making their 

versions of the fish 

head curry. 

Today it is one 

of the best-known 

dishes here, a 

Singapore icon.

I had given up 

hope of finding 

anything more about 

Mr Gomez when 

one day, last year, I 

chanced upon a post 

on Facebook.

 It had a 

photograph of Mr 

Gomez and a brief 

description of the 

fish head curry he 

created. 

As I scrolled 

through the 

comments, I spotted 

the name of one of 

my friends. 

And he happened 

to be a friend of Mr 

Gomez’s grandson 

Desmond.

With my friend’s 

help, I got in touch 

with Desmond, a dental surgeon 

working in Bahrain. 

He told me that his father John 

would be able to help me. 

Dr John Gomez was then working in 

Muscat, Oman.

And then came the surprise. 

It turned out that Mr Gomez, on 

his return to India from Singapore in 

the 1960s, had settled in my ancestral 

hometown, Kollam, and had lived 

there till he died in 1974.

It so happened that when I visited 

Kollam recently, his son, Dr John 

Gomez, was also in town, back from 

Muscat.

And we were able to sit down 

and chat. Over tea and snacks, he 

spent more than two hours talking 

of his dad and his younger days in 

Singapore.

For some reason, he said, he has 

never felt a pull to visit Singapore, the 

land where he spent his childhood. He 

has never been back since leaving at 

the age of 13.

“Who knows, I might visit one of 

these days,” he said, as I bid goodbye. 

— PATRICK JONAS

“Mr Lee 

Kuan 

Yew’s 

face 

turned 

red after 

he had the 

spicy curry.”

 — Dr John Gomez

Page12

December8,2017

tabla

!

 

tabla

!

December8,2017

Page13

SINGAPORE