Actually, my editor did. Eat three versions of the Malaccan Cristang dish devil's curry (debal) in less than 24 hours, that is, for a piece in today's Wall Street Journal Asia 'Weekend Journal'. (No link at the moment, unfortunately.)
This was our first encounter with debal, but it certainly won't be our last. For us this earliest of fusion (sorry! I hate the word too, but in this case it applies) dishes, a blend of Portuguese, Indian, and Chinese influences, hits all the right notes: spicy, tangy-sour, with a little kick from mustard seeds. It's a curry that tastes neither quite Malay, nor quite Indian. It's the addition of vinegar that makes the difference. If you like Goan vindaloo (which is probably curry debal's precursor), you'll love it (though it needn't be as wildly spicy as vindaloo usually is).
A week after we returned from Malacca I made a potful so that Dave could take photos. It's not that difficult a dish to cook - especially if you grind the paste with a blender or food processor instead of by hand - and it greatly improves upon standing, so it's good make-ahead fare. Crusty bread seems as appropriate an accompaniment as rice and a side of stir-fried veg. Readers in places where it's not quite curry weather might tuck this recipe away for a rainy (or snowy) day.
Debal (Devil Curry)
Adapted from Cuzinhia Cristang by Celine J. Marbeck (a great book on Cristang food - highly recommended!)
Like many curries and stews this dish really is better made at least one day ahead and it freezes very well. Debal was traditionally made for Boxing Day, with a mix of roast meats and sausages left over from Christmas. But the chicken version is tasty as well. One of the Cristang cooks that I interviewed for the article makes her debal with regular white vinegar. I'm not sure it matters much which type of vinegar you use but it's essential to keep tasting for sourness. The finished dish should have a pronounced - but not overwhelming - tang. Feel free to reduce the number of chilies. French beans are optional - I prefer my debal without them, though they do make for a colorful photo.
1 kg chicken
1tsp dark (thick) soy sauce, or regular soy sauce mixed with 1/4 tsp brown sugar
3 Tbsp vinegar (red wine, white, rice, white wine, apple cider, even Sherry vinegar)
For the curry paste:
1 1/2 tsp mustard seeds
30 shallots, peeled
5 cloves garlic, peeled
6 candlenuts, peeled (substitute 12 blanched almonds)
bottom 7 cm of three stalks lemongrass, sliced
a thick coin of galangal, peeled and chopped roughly
1/4 tsp turmeric
50 dried chilies, soaked in hot water for 1/2 hour and drained, soaking water retained if you'll be making the paste in a blender or food processor
2 tbsp tamarind pulp (soaked in 1/2 cup hot water and strained to extract 1 Tbsp juice)
1/3 cup oil
2 thick coins young ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 large onions, peeled and quartered top to bottom
6 large fresh red chilies (mild), red stalks left on and cut in half lengthwise
2 tsp mustard seeds
6 potatoes, peeled and quartered
20 or so French beans, slit in half lengthwise (optional)
salt, sugar, and vinegar to taste
- Mix the vinegar and soy sauce and marinate the chicken for 20-30 mins.
- Blend or process paste ingredients till smooth, adding chili soaking water or plain water as necessary to facilitate grinding (if you're not doing it by hand).
- Heat the oil in a large Dutch oven or other stew pan over medium-high heat. Add the ginger, fry till golden, and remove and set aside. Repeat with the onions, and then with the red chilies.
- Lower the heat to medium, add the 2 tsp mustard seeds, and allow them to pop.
- Add the paste and fry, stirring constantly, until it loses its raw smell and becomes dark and glossy, with an oily sheen.
- Remove chicken from marinade and slowly add the liquid to the fried paste, stirring constantly.
- Add chicken and potatoes and toss to coat well with paste. Add 1 Tbsp tamarind juice and enough water to cover the chicken.
- Boil rapidly, uncovered, for 10 mins, then reduce heat to simmer and cook until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes. (Top up water if necessary, but you do want the gravy to reduce.) Add French beans if using and continue to cook until tender.
- Add salt to taste. Taste for sour and add more vinegar - or sugar - if necessary.
- Serve hot, or allow to cool and then park the debal in the fridge for up to a week or the freezer for up to 3 months.