Debal (prefered name Devil's) Curry is a Eurasian dish created once ago on Boxing Day with mostly leftovers from the mastication carnage of the previous day's Christmas feasting orgy. They sharpen it with tanginess, embolden with spices and chillies plus splash some mustard seeds in for good measure. But come each August (or thereabouts), more precisely on the 7th month of the Chinese lunar calendar, Devils Curry take on a different meaning.
Everything, not just the Curry, has to be exacting and right. The juicy Cantonese style roast chicken, just like the Peking duck, must have skin that's thin, golden brown and crackly crispy. Nothing less will do. The roast pork should also be as diligently done as the fowl: Its light, porous and biscuit-crackly skin must have a thin layer of fat and juicy meat under it. The dishes offered, must all be gobsmackingly outta-this-world good as any compromise will invoke the anger of the "diners," who are outta this world too. Nobody wants to offend them.
It's the Festival of the Hungry Ghost.
Believers understand that when the first moon of the 7th lunar month rises, the gates of Hell releases its "inmates" for a month's R&R on earth. That's when the majority-Chinese community lay low; no business deals are struck, and no projects reliant on luck and Feng Shui is launched. Don't even think about staying out late past the bewitching hour of midnight.
Upon release, any inmate whether from here or a netherworld, would seek three simple pleasures first: food, money and entertainment. So, this month, till later in September, it's partake, party and pleasure. You can only imagine how elaborate mere mortals can up the tempo on a belief and idea like this.
The Taoist community original started out by celebrating the birthday of the Earth Official, Zhong Yuan, thanking him for pardoning the sins of the dead. Very humbly, they offered buns and rice with simple signature staples then. Now, it's a true "street food" jamboree. Devotees pump up the action, offering rich, even decadent signatures, plus wine, lavish concerts and hand puppet shows all over the country to entertain the lost souls for weeks before and after the Zhong Yuan's birthday celebrations, in the hope that the souls will be happy, satisfied, good and seek repentance. The front rows of such concerts are always reserved for the unseen guests.
There are also decadent nine-course dinner banquets where charity auctions -- folks bid aggressively for auspicious decorative items like animal sculpture and paper ikebana, blessed in the name of compassion for luck -- conducted by very entertaining and loud auctioneers are the main attractions. All these treats mean there will be no tricks played on you by the wandering souls. Some even believe they can bring good luck.
So they burn paper mache materialism, like iPhones, cars, houses, clothes, shoes, Hello Kitty toys, Hell bank notes and, once, they even burned an huge karaoke club, complete with sexy paper doll hostesses, just so the spirits could receive its essence. But -- and this is a key rule -- the food must be real. No fake roast ducks or wine! And it's wise to offer delicacies of the three physical realms of existence, meaning seafood from the oceans, meat from the land and birds from the sky. Fruits should be round, of the garden variety and fresh; no durians or other pungent stuff to shock 'em. They "eat" by smelling, says a temple medium, just like a seriously diabetic gourmand on strict doctor's orders.
Like Halloween, it's a celebration but sans the tricking, only the treating. And like any celebration and party, it's not just about you but also the "others" too.