Recipe : Hainanese Gulai Tumis

I know a lot of Hainanese restaurants serve this Gulai Tumis so I shall claim this as a Hainanese dish. In case you are not aware, Hainaneses are Chinese from the Hainan island in China. Hainan is near to the equator and hence, their cooking differs from the Chinese from the northern part of China like the Cantonese. Therefore, it is apt to call Hainanese women ‘typhoon’ because they are said to be more bad tempered (like me, me, me) and our ‘wind’ blows harder when provoked.

The Hainanese men who migrated to Malaysia mostly ended up cooking for the colonial British families in Malaya and eventually, they went on to open restaurants. My father was a teacher but he knows how to make a lot of special dishes. For example, how to castrate cocks (male chicken, ok?) to fatten them to make delicious Hainan chicken rice or injecting growth hormones to make the chicken grow faster.

Since Hainan island is hotter, I suppose they have all these lovely herbs like lemongrass, tumeric, ginger flower, cekur and etc. Therefore, our cooking is rather spicy.


Seen above are some of the herbs like lemongrass, fresh ginger, fresh tumeric, chillies and onions. To make gulai tumis, they normally chopped them finely. However, I am lazy so I blended them roughly.


The pinkish flower above is the bunga kantan or ginger flower. It is not only pretty, it has the nicest fragrance. The brownish glob of things are the tamarind pieces and a tiny piece of belacan, the most vile smelling prawn ‘chocolate’. I hate cooking anything with belacan because I need to wipe my kitchen wall, mop the floor and still smell of the prawn smells. After that, I need to shampoo my hair twice to get rid of it.

However, don’t let my dramatic description fools you. Belacan is an essential item in cooking curries and it really smells good when combined with the herbs.


Recipe for gulai tumis

Ingredients :

Two large onions

Three to four stalks of fresh red chillies

Thumb size fresh tumeric

Thumb size fresh ginger

Two lemongrass, only the whitish parts

(blend all the above roughly)

One ginger flower, either chopped up or quartered (some people dislike biting on it)

Little quarter of belacan

Four pieces of tamarind pieces

A little pulp of tamarind to make the juice

Oil for stir frying

Salt and sugar to flavour

Enough water to cover the fish (this curry is meant to be quite dry so use water sparingly)

Fish – About 600 grams. Oily fish is good. So is fish head. Salmon head will be fantastic too



Heat some oil and fry the blended herbs and the other ingredients. Put in fish, add enough water to cover and simmer. Flavour with salt and sugar.


Mint leaves and the other leave (daun kesum, can’t remember the English term) will be great.



Do you know that this gulai tumis is fantastic with cream crackers? I grew up eating lots of cream crackers dipped in the gravy of the gulai tumis. Try it next time.

If you like a particular restaurant gulai tumis, here’s a wicked way to pack the curry home. Normally, we cannot finish the gravy during our meals but they taste really delicious. So, we order a bigger portion, eat some and packed the rest home.

Writing this post suddenly made me missed my mom’s cooking. It is kinda warm and yet, sad that we sometimes think of someone whom has passed on when we see or eat a particular dish. In my mom’s memory….gulai tumis.

7 Replies to “Recipe : Hainanese Gulai Tumis”

  1. Your bowl of gulai tumis looks very mouth watering lo. Who could have thought of eating cream crackers with the gulai gravy. Thanks for sharing this great idea.
    I usually take my gulai with white beehoon.

  2. Thank you for sharing the gulai tumis. Never knew Hainanese can cook such a dish. Pls. could you recommend me the brand of belachan you normally use. TQ

  3. cream crackers in gulai tumis?!! something new to us, worth trying.

    But hor this is not weird comparing to Tham Jiak eat Hokkien Mee with Eiu Char Koay… lolx

    I am Huat Koay here.

  4. Yummy!!!! Long time never had Gulai Tumis 🙂
    I like to drink the gravy like soup.
    I like Typhoon too… good exercise to release my tension.

  5. im also a hainanese.butm so far i havent come across gulai late father make a very mean pig trotters hainanese style.i would like to recommend you belachan from melaka.the difference between the penang version and m’cca are the former is made frm prawns head while the latter frm geragu(small prawns).it doesn’t hv the offensive smell like the ones frm penang.but the taste is smashing.

  6. Funny you should mention about your mother, my mother makes fantastic gulai tumis too. People in KL always call it as assam fish……but its not…. (BTW, I thought gulai tumis was a penang nyonya dish, I didn’t know it was hainanese.) My mother always makes extra gravy and we will drown the rice with the gravy, she makes it extra pedas too…yum! Its so nice, I will ‘drink’ the gravy….and suffer later!

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