Devil curry is a spicy, tangy Eurasian meat curry, usually chicken, that’s flavoured with vinegar. Traditionally served at festive occasions like Christmas, devil curry is popularly enjoyed as a delicious home-cooked meal throughout the year.
Hi, everybody! If you’ve been following my stories, you’ll know how much I enjoy exploring heritage foods, especially cuisine that is so integral to Singapore’s. I have a list of must-try heritage foods that I’ve been working on, and on that list are some of my all-time favourites like fish head curry and babi pongteh (braised pork in fermented soy bean paste). Today, I’m really excited to share another iconic heritage dish, Eurasian devil curry.
What is devil curry?
Picture a deep red, fiery-looking spicy curry of meats and sausages, usually chicken and pork, with a mishmash of potatoes, onions, cabbage, even tomatoes. If that sounds like a hodgepodge, it sort of is, because devil curry came about as a practical way to use up Christmas dinner leftovers.
Known as debal curry (kari debal), devil curry is an Eurasian meat stew that evolved from the Portuguese. That’s why you can find Western ingredients like roast pork and sausages with Asian spices like lemon grass, ginger, galangal, turmeric and candlenuts. This curry is characteristically hell-fire spicy, as perhaps intended by its name. You’ll find copious amounts of red chillies, with added heat from mustard seeds and ginger.
I have read that there is one thing that sets devil curry apart from other curries. Notably, aficionados agree that devil curry should have a pronounced vinegarish tartness in its flavour. In fact, some chefs consider it an absolute must which is why vinegar is always on a devil curry recipe.
I think your first impression of devil curry might be a smorgasbord of unlikely ingredients just thrown together. Yet fascinatingly, the curry melds into a hearty, delicious, edible potpourri. These days, it doesn’t need to be a festive or celebration occasion to enjoy devil curry. Its popularly enjoyed as everyday fare by Eurasians and non-Eurasians alike.
Origins of devil curry
My general reading of the literature on devil curry is that it originated with the Kristang (Cristang) community in the 16th century. The early Kristang predominantly settled in Malacca, and to some extent in Singapore. They were mostly Eurasian Catholics who descended from inter-marriages between Portuguese colonists and the local Malaccans.
The Kristang speak in their own language, which is a mix of mostly Portuguese and Malay. They maintain a unique culture, and Kristang cuisine combines Portuguese elements with Malay, Chinese and Indian influences.
A Simplified Recipe for Everyday Cooking
I actually happen to have several recipes on hand for devil curry. Of all, my favourite is this one adapted from one of my most relied upon cookbooks titled ‘Singapore Food – A treasury of more than 200 time-tested recipes ‘ by Wendy Hutton.
I think you’ll find this version simpler to prepare, yet the recipe is quintessentially devil curry that retains its bold, sophisticated flavours. What constitutes this devil curry are:
- chicken and potatoes. If you do have some leftovers like sausages or roast meats, feel free to add. This will be an easy way to use them up!
- reduced amount of red chillies. I’ve deliberately reduced the amount of chillies. If you love it really spicy, you can increase the quantity to say, 25 to 30.
- a quintessential spice mix. Mustard seeds, dried chillies, fresh chillies, shallots, garlic, galangal, turmeric, candlenuts, and lemongrass.
The melange of spices might seem a little daunting but it’ll become second nature as you get more familiar cooking with Asian spices. The spice mix is the bedrock for a mouthwatering and scrumptious devil curry, so do try not to skip any ingredient. If you live outside Asia, chances are it will be easy to find the fresh, frozen, or ground variety of these spices in nearby Asian stores.
Like most curries, devil curry tastes better with time. Overnight, the flavours will have come together, developing a richer and bolder flavour. It is usually served with steamed rice. I really hope you’ll enjoy this unique Eurasian dish!
Planning your next meal? Here are some suggestions:
- Kapitan Soy Sauce Chicken
- Braised Pork Belly in Soy Sauce (Tau Yu Bak/Lou Bak)
- Nonya Chicken Curry
- Thai Green Curry Chicken
Tried this recipe? I’d love to see! Remember to share your pics on Instagram and tag @foodelicacy or #foodelicacy.
SAVE THIS RECIPE!
- 1 whole chicken, 1 to 1.2 kg chopped into bite-sized chunks
- 2 tbsp black soy sauce
- 4 tbsp blended spice paste (see below)
- 1/2 cup cooking oil
- 2 tsp black or brown mustard seeds
- 3 – 4 cups water
- 3 lemon grass stems bottom 1/3 section, bruised
- 2 yellow onions peeled, quartered
- 1 1/2 – 2 tsp salt or to taste
- 3 potatoes peeled, quartered
For the spice paste:
- 16 – 20 dried chillies cut into 2-cm (1-inch) lengths, soaked in warm water for 20 – 30 mins to soften
- 4 large red chillies roughly chopped
- 120 g shallots peeled, roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp chopped garlic
- 2 tbsp chopped ginger
- 1 tbsp chopped galangal
- 1/2 tsp ground turmeric (optional)
- 3 candlenuts or macadamia nuts crushed
For the vinegar mixture:
- 4 tbsp vinegar
- 2 tsp sugar or to taste
- 1 tsp English mustard powder
- In a food processor or blender, process the spice paste ingredients to a fine paste. Add a little oil to grease the blades, if necessary.
- Put 4 tbsp of the blended spice paste and the dark soy sauce in a large bowl, and stir to mix well. Add the chicken pieces and stir enough times to coat well with the mixture.
- In a wok or skillet, heat up 1/4 cup oil over high heat. When very hot, add the marinated chicken and stir-fry until the meat changes colour all over, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces and set aside.
- Add the remaining 1/4 cup oil and reduce the heat. Add the mustard seeds and fry until you hear the seeds popping.
- Add the remaining spice paste, and fry over low-medium heat until fragrant, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add onions and stir-fry with the spice paste for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Add water, lemon grass and salt. Allow to simmer for 2 to 3 minutes, scraping any spice paste from the bottom of the wok or skillet. Add the chicken and more water, if needed, to just cover the chicken. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Add the potatoes. Stir occasionally to cook the potatoes evenly, about 20 minutes, or until softened. Let simmer until the chicken is tender as well.
- Stir in the vinegar mixture and let simmer for 1 minute.
- Do a final taste test, and flavour with more salt and sugar, if desired. Dish out onto serving plate and serve hot.