Massaman curry is a unique Thai curry that is not fiercely hot. It is is a rich curry of Persian origin which has been wonderfully assimilated into the classic Thai cuisine in the Southern region of Thailand.
Massaman curry is ideal for people who want to try the authentic Asian flavor, yet do not wish to bear the burning hot feeling of most curries, such as Thai green curry. It also shares some similarity with Nyonya cuisine called chicken kapitan due to the proximity to Malaysia.
The dish has a signature sour note from tamarind pulp, and its name is derived from the Malay word masam, which means “sour.”
I am using the store-bought Massaman curry paste in this recipe. You also have a choice to make the curry paste from scratch if you are interested, which I have the recipe in the following section. Either way, you will love the wonderful flavor of this cuisine, which was voted the world’s top ten most delicious food by the readers of CNN Travel in 2011.
How to cook the perfect Massaman curry
1. Reduce the coconut milk
Coconut milk plays a vital role in Massaman curry. The fat content and flavor of freshly pressed coconut milk are 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.
Here is how to do it: Pour half of the coconut milk into a pan. Simmer the coconut milk over low heat until it thickens and the coconut oil starts to separate from the water phase.
Coconut milk is an emulsion. When it heats up, the oil and water will start to separate into two layers. When we reduce the amount further until mostly the oil is left behind, add the Massaman curry paste and saute until it turns aromatic.
Note that if you use enough coconut milk, the coconut oil is enough to saute the curry paste. However, you can add some cooking oil if there is too little coconut oil remains.
2. Add the curry paste
You will notice the coconut oil is bubbling at the edge of the curry paste. When that happens, and you smell the aroma rising from the pan, proceed to add the chicken.
If you use any store-bought Massaman curry pastes, be conservative when adding other seasonings as they can be quite salty.
The flavors of the massaman curry paste (nam phrik kaeng matsaman) come from various dry spices seldom used in Thai cuisines such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, bay leaves, and nutmeg along with other common Thai ingredients such as galangal and lemongrass.
I suggest you use the store-bought curry paste to prepare a small portion of the curry. It is not practical to make it from scratch since you need more than ten different herbs and spices to make the curry paste.
How to make the curry paste
If you’re making a larger batch for a party, then you can follow the recipe below to create your blend.
Massaman Curry Paste (make from scratch)
1 tbsp coriander seed, roasted
1 tsp cumin seeds, roasted
1/2 tsp nutmeg, grated
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves
4 oz shallots, finely chopped
1 oz garlic, finely chopped
1 stalk lemongrass, finely sliced
1 tbsp galangal, finely chopped
1 tbsp kaffir lime leaves, finely sliced
1 tsp ground white pepper
10 red chilies
1 tbsp salt
1-2 tbsp Thai shrimp paste
4 green cardamom pods
100 g vegetable oil
– Remove the seeds and inner bits of the dry chilies.
– Roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, dry chili, 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.
3. Add the chicken, potatoes and more coconut milk,
Now you can add the remaining coconut milk and braised the chicken. Add some water if there is not enough coconut milk to submerge the chicken fully for braising.
Chicken is the most popular meat to cook Massaman curry with but beef, lamb and mutton are equally common in Thailand.
Bone-in chicken (or beef) is preferred over meat alone since the bone will release more flavor to the curry. Braising will extract flavor just like the process of making stocks.
Use beef instead of chicken. Chicken can be substituted with beef, but you need to braise it longer until it is soft and tender. You may also consider to boil the beef (bone-in) in a separate pot for ten minutes, skim off the scum floating on the surface and then only transfer to the pot to braise with other ingredients.
If you want to serve the Massaman curry immediately, you can braise the chicken for fifteen minutes, add the potatoes and continue for another 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.
Cut a medium-sized onion into bite size and add into the pot at this point. Some people would brown the onion first, which I find that the difference is not significant.
4. Add seasonings
You can add the remaining spices and seasonings anytime while braising the chicken.
Add the cardamom, cinnamon stick and bay leaves to simmer with the chicken.
It is best to use the whole spices to prepare the Massaman curry paste. Alternatively, use freshly ground spices for making the paste, as the flavor of spices will be lost over time.
There are a few less commonly used items in non-Asian recipes which I would like to explain :
Place the tamarind in a small amount of hot water. Let it sits for ten minutes to let the flavor diffuse into the water. Discuss the pulp and seeds and only use the tamarind water.
Since the exact amount of the tamarind is difficult to determine, the most practical way is to do a taste test to decide how sour you prefer.
You can use the tamarind concentrate is fresh tamarind is not available. This concentrate tends to be stronger so you may need a smaller amount.
As for the tamarind juice, it also depends on how concentrated it is and how sour is the tamarind pulp that you use.
Palm sugar has a unique aroma.
If palm sugar is not available, you can use brown sugar and adjust the sweetness.
Fish sauce is salty, so there is no need to include salt in this recipe.
The balance of sweetness, sourness, and saltiness will create the unique flavor of Massaman curry. This unique massaman curry flavor can be achieved by fine-tuning the flavor by using palm sugar, tamarind juice, and fish sauce. Do a taste test before serving is the best option.
Simmer the meat over low heat as high heat can toughen the meat. Since the water will be reduced gradually during braising, you may need to add some water to keep the chicken and potatoes submerge in the water. Add only hot water so that there won’t cause a sudden drop in temperature.
5. Roasted peanut
When the chicken and potatoes have become soft, add the roasted peanuts to the curry. The peanuts will remain crunchy when served. You can add the peanuts together with the potatoes if you prefer soft peanuts.
6. Taste test and serve
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.
Check also whether the thickness of the gravy is what you want. You can reduce the gravy if it is too diluted.
Let’s cook Massaman curry…
Massaman curry is relatively mild with fewer chilies used compared to other curries. 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.
The massaman curry tastes great if you let it sit overnight after the flavor penetrates deeply into the meat and potatoes.
- 150ml of coconut milk
- 65g Massaman curry paste
- 500g of chicken thighs
- 1 onion, medium size, cut into pieces
- 150g potatoes, cut into 3 cm cubes
Herbs, spices and others
- 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
Serving Size:2 servings
Amount Per Serving:Calories: 1004 Total Fat: 65g Saturated Fat: 27g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 35g Cholesterol: 332mg Sodium: 2105mg Carbohydrates: 42g Fiber: 5g Sugar: 14g Protein: 73g