Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
While Christmas feasts are often the highlight of the holiday season, for many Eurasians in Singapore, it is what comes the next day that truly excites them.
Boxing Day, after all, is when a fridge full of leftovers gets turned into something even better: Debal (pronounced "dee-bahl"), also known as curry devil or devil's curry, a multi-layered spicy stew that blends Western meats like glazed ham and roast beef with Southeast Asian ingredients such as ginger and fiery dried chilis.
The dish is a classic in Singapore's Eurasian cuisine, which first developed in the 19th century when Dutch, British, and Portuguese traders began migrating to Singapore and marrying into local families. The dishes that sprang up in Eurasian home kitchens were the country's original fusion food, combining elements of East and West to create new culinary traditions. Feng, for example, mixes together pork belly, pig's ears, kidney, stomach, liver, and intestines with white vinegar, popular with the British, and a heady cocktail of spices--fennel, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, to name a few.
As he stirs, D'Silva laments the fact that Eurasian cuisine may slowly be dying.
Because some Eurasian dishes can be rather time-consuming to make, home cooks don't make them as often any more. Once a year, however, chef Damian D'Silva, who sells Western and Peranakan (or Straits Chinese) food at Big D's Grill in Singapore's Holland Village neighborhood, hunkers down to make a massive pot of traditional Boxing Day debal for his relatives and customers.
D'Silva, who is Eurasian, first learned to make debal as a child. As a boy of 11, he began hanging out with his grandfather in the kitchen. "My granddad would be at the stove, stirring with his right hand, and he would always be sipping from a whiskey in his left hand," he says. "I just thought he was the coolest cook." In short order, D'Silva became his grandfather's sous chef, peeling and slicing gingers and meats and grinding up spices into paste with a granite mortar and pestle.
Photo by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
From watching his grandfather, D'Silva learned to love feeding people. "What was amazing to me was that you would combine all these different ingredients and at the end, you'd have a dish that was completely unexpected," says D'Silva, who learned how to make feng from his grandfather as well.
With debal, the process is fairly laborious. A few days before Christmas, D'Silva is hunched over his flaming hot stove, sweat streaming down his face as he vigorously stirs a thick wooden paddle around a large pot as if rowing a boat, slowly and steadily. From start to finish, the stirring has to be constant, he says, meaning that cooks attempting this will be in for a good workout that could stretch over more than two hours.
D'Silva explains that he makes debal before Christmas because his mother now has 80 or so guests who like to stop by on the holiday hoping to sample some. (He also puts it on the Big D's Grill menu on Boxing Day. During the rest of the year, he does a less complex version with chicken for his customers.)
As he stirs, D'Silva laments the fact that Eurasian cuisine may slowly be dying. Dishes like the innards-heavy feng are "an acquired taste" that holds less appeal for the Starbucks generation, he says. And the amount of work that goes into some Eurasian dishes means fewer home cooks are making them regularly, much less handing down those recipes.
He speaks with particular longing for a dish he only sampled once as a child and has never seen since: Kutti Pi (pronounced "cutie pie"), a vinegary, slow-cooked goat's fetus. (The Anglo-Indians have a similar dish.) Because the fetus's bones "haven't set yet the bones are so soft--you just put everything in your mouth and chew," D'Silva says, noting that even if he wanted to make it, it's impossible to find goat's fetus these days. "No one will sell it to you."
Debal, on the other hand, is a lot less taboo and more widely embraced these days. And D'Silva, who says he loves how the saltiness of the roast pork and ham combines with the hot chilis and English mustard, is determined to keep cooking it.
"I'm imagining my granddad standing here with me," he says, smiling as he continues to thrust his paddle around the pot. "He's got his Scotch in his hand and he's taking a sip. He's happy because he's doing something he loves--and he knows this is going to be one hell of a debal."