Standing out among the other curries in the classic Thai cuisine is the unique Massaman* curry whose name, according to an unsubstantiated theory is homonymic with an out-of-use word for a Muslim man (I’m still waiting for credible evidence supporting that theory). Regardless, all signs point to strong influence from the Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines on this particular curry; i.e. the aroma of cardamom and cumin is more dominant, the heat more subdued, and pork is traditionally never the meat of choice. In our household, when I was growing up, Massamancurry was considered a “training curry” for children due to its lower level of spiciness compared to that of red, green, or panaeng curry.
Just as the name of Marcel Proust is nearly always invoked whenever the French cakelet, Madeleine, is mentioned, a reference to a boat song (กาพย์เห่เรือ) composed by King Rama II, the poetically-inclined second monarch of the House of Chakri, almost always accompanies any Massaman-related article. This is because, due to the inclusion of Massamancurry in the bicentenarian song, we know not only that this rich, flavorful curry existed back then, but also that it was part of the royal cuisine in the early Ratanakosin period. The fact that Massaman curry is the first dish referred to in the opening savory section (เห่ชมเครื่องคาว) of the not-too-lengthy set of verses has also led to an assumption that it might have been one of the royal poet’s favorite dishes.
The so-called boat song talks about how the thoughts of different dishes remind the poet of a beloved lady. The initial few verses wherein Massaman is mentioned (literal translation – “any man who has tasted (your) Massaman pines for you“) are the most well-known and the most often cited (unfortunately, not always accurately) among the modern readers. My guess is that while most of the other dishes or food items have become more and more difficult to find — some of them would even make young kids these days squint and go, “huh?” — Massaman has enjoyed its unbroken streak of popularity to this day. And readers of ancient documents, from my experience, tend to remember best things that are relevant to their present day lives.
Here’s how to destroy it:
- Since long, slow cooking by moist heat coaxes the deep, rich flavor out of the bone-in or tough cuts of meat, the use of lean, tender protein will guarantee to destroy what we love about Massaman. This is very effective in killing it.
- Overcook the potatoes so they fall apart and turn the otherwise unctuous, smooth sauce into a lumpy starchy mess.
- Try too hard to make it more Thai by adding basil leaves, kaffir lime leaves, fresh chillies, or other ill-advised add-ins: Some Thai curries aren’t supposed to contain these things; Massaman is definitely one of them.
- Take the vegetable freedom a bit too far: While red and green curries allow more freedom for improvisation, Massaman seems quite fixed in the way it’s made. Traditionally, vegetables other than potatoes and onions don’t seem to show their faces in a bowl of Massaman often, if at all.**
- Make it in a crock pot or pressure cooker.
Other than the things mentioned above, Massaman is as easy to make as any Thai curry made with commercial curry paste.
The flavor of commercial curry paste should be good enough to guarantee good outcome without further embellishment on your part. But if you want to kick it up a notch, you can add lightly toasted white (or black or green) cardamom pods and some cumin seeds towards the end of the cooking time. (These spices have already been included in the paste; this is just to bring their flavors and fragrance to the fore a bit more.)
- Your choice of meat: 2 lbs of beef, cut into 1.5-inch cubes (The tougher, more sinewy the better. Choose the same cut you would to make pot roast with. That said, I personally detest brisket for Massaman. Beef shank, on the other hand, is so delicious.) OR 2.5 lbs of bone-in chicken pieces, brutally hacked with a big cleaver into large chunks. Or you can just use whole drumsticks.
- 1 13.5-ounce can good coconut milk
- 1 lb of waxy, low-starch potatoes (the kind that makes horrible baked potatoes), cut into 2-inch chunks. (I like to keep the skin on so the potato chunks hold their shape better.)
- 8 ounces white or yellow pearl onions, peeled (or 3 medium yellow onions, quartered)
- One 4-ounce can of Massaman curry paste (I like very strong-flavored curry. Use half or ⅓ of a can, if you like your curry milder. Keep in mind, though, that Massaman — unlike red or green curries — is not at all fiery hot.)
- 2 tablespoons of prepared tamarind paste
- Fish sauce, to taste
- Palm, coconut, or brown sugar, to taste
- ⅓ cup dry-roasted peanuts, optional
- 7-8 lightly toasted white cardamoms, optional
- 1 teaspoon of lightly toasted cumin seeds, optional
- Scoop out about ¾ cup of the top, creamy part of the coconut milk and put in a large heavy-bottomed pot along with the curry paste. Fry the paste in the coconut cream over medium-high heat until the mixture turns into a creamy paste, bubbles up, and the coconut starts to turn oily.
- Add the meat into the pot; stir to coat the meat with the curry paste. Add the remaining coconut milk and just enough water to barely cover the meat.
- Turn up the heat just until everything comes to a boil; immediately lower the heat so that the curry is gently simmering. Cook, covered, until the meat is almost tender. The cooking time varies, depending upon the cuts of meat. Bone-in chicken or whole drumsticks don’t take more than an hour to cook. Beef shank, on the other hand, could take up to 3-4 hours.
- Check on the meat periodically. If more water is needed to keep the meat submerged, add it to the pot and restore the gentle simmer after each addition.
- Add the onions and potatoes to the pot along with 2 tablespoons of fish sauce. You should add the onions and potatoes at the point where you feel it would take about 20 minutes for the meat to be perfectly tender. Add the vegetables before that point and they become mushy and fall apart by the time the meat is properly cooked. Add the vegetables after the meat has been perfectly cooked and by the time the onions and potatoes are tender, the meat will have been falling apart. This is the part where exact time requirement is not practical and common sense is necessary.
- About 5 minutes before the potatoes and onions are ready, start seasoning the curry to taste with the tamarind paste, sugar, and extra cardamom and cumin, if desired. If more fish sauce is needed, add it now. Try to recall the taste of the version of Massaman curry which you like and keep seasoning it with tamarind, sugar, and fish sauce, and tasting until you achieve that flavor. (I like mine a bit on the sweet side with some tang.)
- If you want to add peanuts, do so at this point.
- Remove the pot from heat and serve the curry over rice.
*Also spelled masaman, matsaman, massamun, mussamun, mutsaman, mutsamun.
**If you really have or want to use other vegetables, try to stick with starchy vegetables, e.g. carrots, rutabagas, turnips, kohlrabi, sweet potatoes, or winter squashes. High-moisture vegetables such as zucchini are not suitable.