Massaman curry (gaeng matsaman – แกงมัสมั่น) is a unique Thai curry. Massaman curry is not fiercely hot and does not cook with curry leaves. It is ideal for people who wants to try the authentic Asian flavor, yet do not wish to bear the burning hot feeling of most curries, such as Thai green curry.
Massaman curry is a rich and relatively mild Thai curry of Persian origin. It has been wonderfully assimilated into the classic Thai cuisine in the Southern region of Thailand. Massaman curry shares some similarity with Nyonya cuisine called chicken kapitan due to the close proximity to Malaysia.
According to Thai food expert David Thompson and Thai journalist Santi Sawetwimon, Massaman curry originated in the 17th century in central Thailand. The dish has a signature sour note from tamarind pulp, and its name is derived from the Malay word masam, which means “sour”.
I divided making the Massaman curry paste and cooking the curry into two recipes. You have a choice to make everything from scratch or get the ready-made Massaman curry paste and dive straight into the curry recipe. Either way you will love the wonderful flavor of this cuisine. It was voted the world’s top ten most delicious food by the readers of CNN Travel in 2011.
Chicken is the most popular meat to cook Massaman curry with but beef, lamb and mutton are equally common in Thailand. The flavors of the massaman curry paste (nam phrik kaeng matsaman) come from various dry spices seldom used in Thai cuisine such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, bay leaves, and nutmeg along with other common Thai ingredients such as galangal and lemongrass.
Massaman curry is relatively mild with fewer chilies used compared to other curries. The spiciness is also mellowed with the addition of coconut milk and potatoes. The curry is slowly cooked until the meat is tender, and sprinkling some crunchy peanuts on it at the end of cooking makes it heavenly tasty.
Massaman curry is one of those few dishes that sit very well and develop complexity and depth with time. Therefore, it is best to make it ahead to enable the flavor to fully develop before serving, which makes it a perfect dish for quick dinners. It is also an elegant dish to serve for weeknight meals or parties.
- 100g (about 6 tablespoons) of Massaman curry paste
- 1 kg of chicken thighs
- 1 large onion cut into pieces
- 300ml of coconut milk
- Water to simmer
- 300g (about 3 medium-sized potatoes) cut into 3 cm cubes
- 10 cardamom pods
- 10cm piece of cinnamon stick
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tablespoons of palm sugar
- 4 tablespoons of tamarind water
- 2 tablespoons of fish sauce
- 100g of lightly roasted whole raw peanuts
- Coriander leaves for garnish
- Heat up half of the coconut milk in a wok, saute until the coconut oil separates from the solid.
- Add the curry paste and saute it on low heat until it turns fragrant. Stir constantly to keep the mixture from sticking.
- Add the chicken into and mix well with the curry paste.
- Add the Thai fish sauce, palm sugar, and tamarind water. Taste and adjust the flavor if necessary. Massaman curry should be slightly sweet with a very subtle sour note from the tamarind.
- Add the cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, and bay leaves.
- Add the coconut milk into the curry paste. Bring it to boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes.
- Add the potatoes and onions. Simmer for another 20 minutes.
- Add the roasted peanuts.
- Garnish with coriander leaves
How to cook the perfect Massaman curry
- It is best to use the whole spices to prepare the Massaman curry paste. Alternatively, use freshly ground spices for making the paste. This is because the flavor of spices will be lost over time.
- You can substitute shallots with onions for Massaman curry (and for other curries). Substituting pearl onions for regular onions can definitely make a nicer Massaman curry.
- Coconut milk plays an important role in Massaman curry. The fat content and flavor of freshly pressed coconut milk is different from the processed coconut milk in cans or packets. I use fresh coconut milk directly bought from the local market for this recipe. Adjust the amount if you use canned or packaged coconut milk.. The amount can be significantly varied from one Massaman curry recipe to another. You can use the general guideline of 300 ml of coconut milk for 1 kg of meat.
- If you use any store-bought Massaman curry pastes, be conservative when adding other seasonings as they can be quite salty.
- Adjust the saltiness, sourness, and sweetness at the end of the cooking process to get the right taste. The level of saltiness of different brands of fish sauce is different. As for the tamarind juice, it also depends on how concentrated it is and how sour is the tamarind pulp that you use. If palm sugar is not available, you can use brown sugar and adjust the sweetness. The balance of sweetness, sourness and saltiness will create the most unique flavor of Massaman curry. This can be achieved by fine tuning the flavor by using palm sugar, tamarind juice and fish sauce.
- Roast the spices in a heavy saucepan before adding them to the curry. It can further enhance the flavor of the curry.
- Use an electric food processor to blend the curry paste. It will save you time and make your kitchen work more enjoyable.
- As the curry simmers, it may become too thick and reduced. Add water when necessary.
- Simmer on low heat. High heat can toughen the meat.
- If you want to serve the Massaman curry immediately, you can add the potatoes in the last 20 minutes. By doing this, the chicken and potatoes will cook to the right level at the same time.
- If you intend to eat it a day later, you can cook the chicken alone without the potatoes. Let the chicken cool down and store it in the chiller (or freezer if you intend to keep it longer). When you want to serve, cook the potatoes in a pot of water until they are tender. Drain the potatoes, add them to the chicken curry and cook for another five minutes until the potatoes absorb the flavor of the curry.
- Massaman curry tastes great if you let it sit overnight to let the flavor developed. This will let the flavor of the spices penetrate the meat and potatoes.
- 1 tbsp of roasted coriander seeds
- 1 tsp of roasted cumin seeds
- ½ tsp of grated nutmeg
- ½ tsp of ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp of ground cloves
- 4 oz of finely chopped shallots
- 1 oz of finely chopped garlic
- 1 stalk (bottom part only) of finely sliced lemongrass
- 1 tbsp of sliced galanggal
- 1 tbsp of finely sliced kaffir lime leaves
- 1 tsp of ground white pepper
- 10-15 large dried roasted seeded chopped red chilies
- 1 tbsp of salt
- 1-2 tbsp of Thai shrimp paste
- 4 roasted cardamom pods
- 100 g of vegetable oil
- Remove the seeds and inner bits of the dry chilies.
- Roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, dry chilli and cardamom pods until fragrant.
- Roast the shallot, garlic, lemongrass and galangal until deep brown,
- Put all the ingredients into an electric food processor and blend until it forms a uniform paste.