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.)
*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.