This is, more than anything else, the quintessential Eurasian Malaysian dish. It is a specialty in Melaka, where we had a delicious version of it, where both Straits Chinese and Portuguese communities pass down recipes from generation to generation. It shows obvious influence of Portuguese, Malay, and Indian food. It’s name comes from its heat: simply put, Devil Curry is spicy. Not “whew, spicy!” like, but full-bore, “I’m going to regret this tomorrow morning” spicy. Normally when we get it, I (TP) take it as a challenge to finish it off before my entire brain leaks out of my nose, while JM takes it as a challenge to eat as much as possible while continually saying, “OK, just a little more, it’s too spicy.”
With the heavy vinegar and mustard components, you have a dish that is oddly reminiscent of Carolina-style barbecue. Indeed, a related Melaka favorite, Curry Kapitan, is obviously related to the Southern dish Curry Captain. If you make a not-very-spicy version of this, you could easily pass this off as an American curry dish with an interesting flavor. This is our take on it.
3 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 large onions
8 meaty chicken thighs, well-sprinked with salt
1 Tbsp. mustard seeds
1/4 cup rice vinegar, plus more to taste
3 peeled baking potatoes, chopped into large hunks
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
chilies (see note on chilies at the bottom)
red pepper powder (see note on chilies at the bottom)
black peppercorns (see note on chilies at the bottom)
6 cloves garlic
2 inches ginger, peeled
2 inches fresh turmeric, peeled
8 candlenuts, toasted
1 Tbsp. mustard seeds, lightly toasted and ground
In a blender or food processor, combine all the ingredients for the spice paste.
Heat the oil to medium high heat in a large wok, then add the chicken to brown. Remove and set aside. Heat the oil again to medium heat and add the onions, cooking until just beginning to turn golden. Add the spice paste and fry, stirring constantly, for about five minutes. Add the whole mustard seeds, fry for a minute more, and then add the vinegar, chicken, and enough water to just cover the chicken. Bring to a boil, then add the potatoes. Bring to a boil again, then lower the heat and simmer for about 25 minutes, until potatoes and chicken are cooked through. Add more water as needed to keep the gravy from getting too thick. Add the soy sauce and cook 5 minutes more, then add salt and vinegar to taste. Serve with rice, it looks like this, although we let the gravy get too thick so it’s not quite right.
NOTE ON SPICINESS: We have had some truly volcanic Devil Curries. For a muted version with a hint of heat and most of the flavor, use 1 tsp. red pepper powder, 5 peppercorns, and two chilies for the spice paste. For a spicier but not yet authentic version, try 1 Tbsp. red pepper powder, 10 pappercorns, and five chilies. For an authentic version, we don’t know what you’d do, but you could try adding a birds-eye chili and upping the red pepper powder even more. We will probably never try this because we don’t want to ruin it, so you’ll have to experiment on your own.