Massaman (Matsaman) Curry Recipe (แกงมัสมั่น)


massaman curry recipe
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.

Having extolled the virtues of Massaman curry, I hope I didn’t give you the idea that the dish is indestructible. But that’s not quite true.

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.)

Revision

*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.

55 Responses to Massaman (Matsaman) Curry Recipe (แกงมัสมั่น)

  1. Chow and Chatter July 5, 2010 at 2:56 am #

    wow this looks so good and what a great post so informative

    Rebecca

  2. OysterCulture July 5, 2010 at 2:56 am #

    I love Massaman curry, but discovered its virtues later in my curry eating life. It was definitely not a training curry for me.

    Your version sounds delicious. Do you always cook your Massaman using a commercial curry paste, or is it just too darn time consuming to make from scratch? Is it something you could make a batch of and freeze to use when required? Sorry, my mind is churning with possibilities.

  3. Lydia July 5, 2010 at 2:17 pm #

    It’s funny you mention this as a training curry because that’s exactly what it was for me; probably the first “complex” Thai dish my father and stepmother introduced me to. Although, I have to say that since we did not eat beef, we made it with chicken thighs, and oddly, apples were an ingredient (actually documented in one of my Thai cookbooks–though it is a cookbook geared towards cooking in American kitchens BEFORE the wide availability of Thai ingredients), and I must say I do like it that way, and to this day, Massaman curry is one of my favorites. Thanks, as usual, for the wonderful history around the dish!

  4. Leela July 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    Lydia – Haha. We were trained on the same curry! :)

    You know, cookbooks written during the time when Thai ingredients weren’t available are some of the most interesting Thai cookbooks around. My thinking is that the slight tartness of the apples makes up for the tamarind. Very interesting indeed. Thanks for sharing, Lydia. Always love to hear about your experience!

  5. Leela July 5, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Oyster – No, I hardly make the paste from scratch. The effort and expense required to hunt down all the ingredients don’t justify doing that on a regular basis. For a very special occasion, I would, but definitely not a day-to-day thing.

    The curry can be frozen and reheated. Make a big batch and transfer it to smaller containers, freeze them, and reheat before serving. Undercook the potatoes a little, so they can withstand the freezing and reheating better.

  6. Leela July 5, 2010 at 8:31 pm #

    Rebecca – Thanks. :)

  7. Thip July 6, 2010 at 2:26 am #

    Massaman is the one I always introduce to people who’ve never tried Thai curries before. In my opinion, it’s minder than green curry and red curry.
    p.s. I remember that poetry. :)

  8. pigflyin July 6, 2010 at 12:53 pm #

    Leela, Lynda! It must be the training curry for everyone. I recently stayed at a thai friends home and this is one of the things that I was taught by his parents. The preference for beef shin, the inclusion of tamarine… it is just exactly the same. Thanks for bring back some of the good memory. Prob should do one this weekend.

  9. Anonymous July 6, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Massaman curry is so rich, and always a hit with anyone I have made it for. Its usually a surprise too, since even Thai restaurant goers have seldom tasted it before. I add a little pineapple to mine, and it makes a crucial difference in the taste – at least to me. I had to verify the authenticity of this with Thai sources, but I was assured that it is indeed authentic, as long as the quantity is small. I like to eat it over rice, too, so I usually omit the potatoes, which IS a step towards inauthenticity, I guess :-)

    Thanks for posting this. I will add bits and pieces of your methods to my current recipe.

    IanG

  10. Arwen from Hoglet K July 7, 2010 at 3:03 pm #

    I love mussaman, but I’ve never made one before. Interesting to hear about the boat song – food as a reminder of love is a good theme.

  11. FireintheBreeze (Brittany) July 8, 2010 at 4:03 am #

    mussaman is my favourite, but i can never make a good one compared to the thai restaurant we go to. must give this a try :)

    http://www.bakingwithfrench.blogspot.com

  12. Anonymous July 8, 2010 at 9:36 pm #

    I love mussaman, and maenam in Vancouver makes theirs with chopped lychee in there… I’m sure it would make you cry, but that little bit of sweetness bursting through the meat and poatoes is SO GOOD in there. I’ve started making mine that way…

  13. Leela July 8, 2010 at 11:54 pm #

    Anonymous – I’ve heard about lychee being added to various curries too. The only one I’ve had is roasted duck curry with lychee. This type of curry normally has either pineapple or cherry tomatoes (or both) added to it, but I rather like lychee as the tartness cuts through the duck and coconut grease quite well. Must be fresh lychee, though, not canned.

  14. jj July 11, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

    hi… very nice post….

    which brand of massaman curry is the best?

    so far i really wanted to try the nittaya brand but so far i got only the Lobo brand.

    A friend of mine is going to Thailand again and would like to ask which brand would be the best in terms of taste?

    thanks

  15. Leela July 12, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    JJ – I’ve never tried Nittaya, so can’t say. My favorites are Maesri, Mae Ploy, and Lobo in that order. You may want to read my earlier post on Easy Thai Green Curry Recipe in which I interviewed Kasma Loha-unchit, a Thai cooking guru, and we talked about different commercial Thai curry paste brands.

    Lobo used to be the only brand that comes in thin, plastic packets. So it lent itself very well to air travel. These days, I think most brands package their goods that way. In the US, Maesri comes in 4-ounce cans which I love and always use.

  16. jj July 12, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

    jj

    thanks so much leela! ;) I appreciate it.

    it’s quite difficult to source thai curry pastes here in central Philippines, which is why we ask those who go to BKK for shopping and vacation to bring those thai curries…

    btw, because of your simmering review of Or Tor Kor market, I got to visit that place, and I was stunned at the amount and diversity of native Thai cuisine….

  17. Leela July 12, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    jj – Or Tor Kor rocks. I’ll forever love that place unless they turn it into a karaoke bar. :)

  18. Maggie August 15, 2010 at 4:12 am #

    I have to say – I love to make massaman curry with sweet potatoes. It just works.

  19. Brett B September 14, 2010 at 2:15 am #

    Some very nice notes and musings on how to cook Massaman curry.

    TIP: If you use the Maseri brand 4oz can of curry, it has plenty of sugar and tamarind extract in it already… and a fair bit of salt… so go very easy on the palm sugar, fish sauce and tamarind water. Overdoing any of these (especially the fish sauce) will run it very quickly.

    The Mae Ploy brand of Massman paste it extremely salty and concentrated… but has no sugar or tamarind added. So go super easy on the fish sauce (or leave it out entirely if you taste enough salt) – but add your tamarind water and palm sugar as normal.

    If you want to try a (relatively) simple but extremely delicious version with hand made curry paste, this recipe works great: http://www.realthairecipes.com/recipes/massaman-curry/

  20. Kulsum@JourneyKitchen October 3, 2010 at 7:22 am #

    hey Leela,

    A friend is looking out for recipes based on coconut for a contest and I gave your website link to her. I’m sure she can find some inspiration in coconut based savory dishes here :)

    Besides do you have any recommendations ?

  21. Leela October 3, 2010 at 4:12 pm #

    Kulsum – Thanks. :) Coconut recipes? Oh, gosh, this blog is so full of coconut recipes that the most efficient way to search for them is so a search (in any browser except Firefox; bug problem) or go to the recipe index.

  22. Rachel November 2, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    Thank you for sharing the authentic version of this recipe. I followed your advice and my husband and I enjoy the meal immensely. YUM!

  23. Leela November 2, 2010 at 11:25 pm #

    Rachel – Thanks for the report. :) Glad you guys enjoyed it.

  24. Lori January 26, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Wow! This looks amazing. I’m using this as an example on my blog of a correct massaman curry, as an alternative to my own, which was… using what I had on hand an calling it a massaman even though it actually isn’t really. Anyway, this is great!

  25. aletaquino March 15, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    I have been looking for a massaman curry paste here in Manila does anyone know where to get it or if someone has an extra I am willing to buy them.

  26. Anonymous March 27, 2011 at 10:59 pm #

    the group I’m cooking for this week is vegetarian…any suggestions on making the Massaman vegetarian?

  27. Leela March 27, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Anon – Hmm … I would probably keep the same amount of potatoes and onions and replace the beef with a combination of green beans and some starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, green beans, parsnips, carrots, kohlrabi. These vegetables are great in Massaman. Stay away from cruciferous vegetables and mushrooms.

    Maybe cubed extra-firm tofu, seared on the outside?

    Since the absence of meat and the long slow braising won’t apply here, you may want to add a few vegetable bouillon cubes in there to make up for the loss of savoriness.

    Good luck!

  28. Calvin August 25, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    Thank you for the great information!

    I have a question… When I go to my local Thai restaurant, the curries are served with a good amount of liquid and it resembles a soup more than what I have seen in pictures. It was a surprise to see only one 13.5oz can of coconut milk in this recipe serves 8 people. Is the restaurant I go to just adding water, or more coconut milk or what do you think?

  29. Admin August 25, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

    Calvin – Coconut milk isn’t the only liquid in this recipe. If you read bullet points #2 and #4 of the recipe instructions, you’ll see that water is added in the beginning and replenished along the way so the meat is submerged and stewed properly.

    Having said that, massaman, in my opinion, should be more stew-y than soup-y in keeping with its South Asian/Middle Eastern influence. It’s definitely not a soup and it shouldn’t be slurp-able.

    It doesn’t surprise me that some Thai restaurants add water to the curry to thin it out. Thinner curry = wide profit margin.

    But taste is an individual thing, and if you prefer your massaman soupy, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Once you get to the last stage where the meat is all tender and ready to eat, check the consistency of the sauce. If it’s too thick for you, add sodium-free broth or water as necessary, heat through, and it’s done.

  30. Brad P September 20, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    I found some massaman paste at the store the other day and am now searching on how to use it. Your recipe sounds great! But what would the starting amount of fish sauce and brown sugar be? ( I like both salty and sweet together!)

  31. Admin September 20, 2011 at 1:44 am #

    Brad P – I’d start out with 2 tablespoons of fish sauce (in addition to the 2 tablespoons that you’re supposed to add at the very beginning), 1 tablespoon of brown sugar (more if you use palm sugar as it’s less sweet than brown sugar), and 1/2 tablespoon of tamarind pulp (if desired).

    Taste to see if you like it. If not, adjust as needed.

  32. Rather Grim February 13, 2012 at 10:41 am #

    Made this tonight. Expected it turn out rather average, as although I love, love, love Massaman, I have never made it. To my surprise, it turned out even better than the ones I have had at the Thai restaurants!

    This made up what I would consider 4 serves (albeit, large ones), and at a total cost of about $16 AUD, it turns out a lot cheaper, when compared to $18 AUD for 1 serve, as is normal for small Thai restaurants in my area! And so easy too :)

    Thank you so much for this recipe!

  33. Admin February 13, 2012 at 10:52 am #

    Rather Grim – It’s something like what you’ve just shared that makes it worth running this site. Really. Thanks for the feedback.

  34. calliet April 22, 2012 at 3:32 am #

    I am so glad I have discovered your blog. I love Thai food above anything other but I never ate Massaman curry until I was on a dive boat in the Similans last month. And having grown up with a mother who made all her own wet curry pastes, I was dubious about using canned curry paste but I was very pleased with the end result of this recipe. Thanks Leela! Can you post a recipe for Khanom Krok sometime?

  35. Admin April 22, 2012 at 4:16 am #

    calliet – Thank you. Request noted.

  36. Pear June 3, 2012 at 4:13 pm #

    Leela, I’ve been cooking my way through your blog these past few weeks! I’m a British-born Thai who’s recently moved away from home, where my parents spoiled me with the delicious food they made. My parents are all about cooking au pif, but the slight worry of not living up to taste-memories and cultural standards makes me a bit cautious, so your blog really helps to provide reassurance by providing quantities and directions. I’m very grateful for your work!

    I think my family’s North Eastern roots shaped my parents’ tastes, and subsequently we didn’t really go in for coconut-milk based dishes that much. For some reason I ended up eschewing curries entirely until my teens, when I think I jumped right on the curry bandwagon with gaeng paa. Massaman is definitely my favourite after that, though. In fact, I’ve just come back from buying a nice, shiny new meat cleaver so I can hack chicken joints into chunks specifically for this curry. Really looking forward to trying this out. :)

  37. Kathryn September 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm #

    Leela,

    I just made this tonight; I used pineapple like the Thai restaurant we used to go to when we lived in Northwest Indiana. This turned out better than imagined, and I cannot thank you enough for this blog. Your Mother’s peanut sauce and Pad See Ew are favorites in my home, I have a new passion for sweet soy sauce because of you, and if I can re-create Thai Iced Tea, I don’t think we’ll ever go to the local Thai restaurant again! THANK YOU a thousand times for sharing your delightful recipes!

    Most Sincerely,
    Kathryn

  38. Vivian September 30, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    Leela, my husband is in love with Panaeng curry but I thought I would shake things up a bit with your Massaman… Success! I have another curry to add to our Thai cooking nights. The cooking time was much longer than most Thai dishes I make but well worth the simmering time.
    Keep your delightful recipes coming!

  39. David January 15, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

    Thanks for sharing this recipe; I’ve enjoyed trying to get it right. I have a question, though, and I hope you’ll forgive my ignorance to Thai cuisine. I’ve noticed that the restaurant Massaman dishes that I’ve ordered usually have a smooth peanut flavor in the sauce, something that has been absent from this recipe. Other recipes online call for peanut butter, but I wonder how authentic that is. What’s your take on that?

    • Leela January 16, 2013 at 5:32 am #

      Based on my research so far, though massaman came to us via different traditions, but the most prominent version in Central Thailand most resembles the Persian tradition which sometimes has roasted peanuts added to it (not as a paste ingredient, but an add-in as my recipe suggests). Massaman recipes from a century ago don’t have peanuts at all even as an add-in. The use of peanut butter in the paste would probably give you the kind of massaman served at many Thai restaurants overseas. There’s nothing wrong with liking that, and if that’s the taste you would like your homemade massaman to have, then peanut butter must be added.

      But if you’re going for the kind of massaman that the Thai people would consider the norm, then, no peanut butter.

  40. George January 16, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Leela thank you so much for this wonderful recipe. A search brought me to you back in 2011 after CNN named Massaman Curry the world’s #1 most delicious food in a 2010 article. Your photos looked exactly like the wonderful curry I used to eat at the Mekong Cafe in Salt Lake City. Thanks to your directions and advice I can now nearly match that wonderful stuff (and mine is not so spicy that it makes you cry).

    I have experimented with variations and find that I can get a bit more peanut taste when I want it by course grinding some of the peanuts in a food processor before adding them. The real fun comes in experimenting.

    Thank you so much for your research, photos, and great hints on avoiding disasters (which with massaman curry still taste pretty good!).

  41. jibbi March 13, 2013 at 11:13 am #

    I cook massaman quite often and pineapple can’t be missed. It is a southen thai recipie.

    • Leela March 13, 2013 at 11:31 am #

      jibbi – According to my research, massaman entered mainstream Thai cuisine via different routes, including the Persians who came to live and work in Ayutthaya and Bangkok and had nothing to do with the South. So while a version developed through Southern Thai-Muslims may look a certain way (containing pineapple, as you say), there are some other versions that look different.

  42. Miss Yum March 21, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    Wow — this is next on my list to make. I have been cooking my way through your blog, and every recipe is astonishingly delicious! Since cooking with your recipes I find I can’t stand my old favorite thai restaurant — the flavors are duller, not balanced, and I can make better food for a fraction of the price. THANK YOU!!!!

    So, this is not as spicy as, say, your panaang curry? Just curious as to what the main flavor is.

    All my best — <3

    • Leela March 21, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

      Miss Yum – Massaman is supposed to be mild and redolent of dried spices. It’s quite different from other Thai curries.

  43. John B. March 31, 2013 at 11:58 am #

    Leela, is making your own curry paste really that difficult? I’ve made large quantities of my favorite recipes, frozen them in tupperware containers, and use when necessary. I much prefer them to the commercial brands. One Thai cookbook I have includes sliced kumquats in Massaman Curry! An interesting variation.

    • Leela March 31, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

      John – Not at all. The problem is not that curry pastes are difficult to make (they can be even be made without the mortar); the biggest obstacle is the lack of fresh ingredients and the fact that Thai curry is notoriously unforgiving when it comes to substitution. (If you’re interested, read my view on this issue on Easy Thai Green Curry.)

      Some very, very old massaman recipes call for the juice of a type of citrus (very hard to find these days even in Thailand), so a kumquats in massaman, though striking me as more of a novelty than a norm, is intriguing!

  44. Redhotchili July 20, 2013 at 3:49 am #

    Look yum..Thank you for sharing..all good things, Jazz

  45. cassi July 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    This is the most delicious and foolproof massamun curry I have tried. Thanks heaps!

  46. ponybeisst September 20, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    What’s your take on serving ajat with massaman curry (made with chicken)? Is it an abomination?

    • Leela September 21, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

      ponybeisst – It’s not done, and, personally, I wouldn’t do it. But nothing is an abomination if you and your family enjoy it.

  47. Theresa February 16, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    I made this tonight and it turned out great! Thank you for your detailed recipes and all of the other information you provide. And I love the stories too — tomorrow I want to make your grandmother’s yellow chicken :-)

  48. Chris June 19, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

    Hey Leela

    After trawling the internet for some time looking for a more traditional recipe, yours appears far above par. Thanks for your efforts on this blog. I was just wondering why you suggest a slow cooker would be detrimental to the dish? Some other sites suggest longer cooking times release more flavour.

    Chris

    • Leela June 20, 2014 at 4:43 pm #

      Chris – The issue is not about longer cooking time; it’s about how a slow cooker draws moisture out of the meat resulting in the overall consistency being much too brothy (it’s supposed to be thick and viscous).

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. minty dark and stormies | a fistful of basil - August 7, 2013

    […] of his birthday, I decided to cook something with beef, his favorite food. I made Leela’s massaman curry with brown rice. Before serving, I took a chunk of tender beef, rinsed it in cold water to remove […]