What makes the best Massaman curry?
- This aromatic southern Thai staple is a wonderful bouquet of flavours and spices
- Massaman curry’s origin can be traced to the 17th century in cosmopolitan Ayutthaya, Siam’s capital city
The men from the boat have laid out a generous spread of salad, rice, chicken curry and cans of Coke on a makeshift table on the near-empty beach. The rich orange chicken curry with a film of oil floating on top calls out to me but I’m hesitant about the stormy sea that lies ahead of us, the turbulence we will have to endure to get back to land, safe or sorry. The long-tail boat, which we had taken out for a snorkelling tour around the reefs that dot Ko Lanta, the southern Thai island’s surroundings, bobs about on the waters near the shore.
I’ve fortified myself with phenothiazines but there’s no pill to escape the taste of the gut-wrenchingly salty water I had swallowed while following electric blue fish underwater. Despite the darkening sky, the whipping wind and our uncertain return to land, I decide to give food, like always, a chance.
The chicken curry tastes sweet, with a hint of hot chilli, refreshing and life-affirming. Savouring the mild yet tangy gravy, I recognize that this is not the usual chicken curry and ask Lai, our boat boy, what it is. Lai says it’s the Thai Massaman curry, a staple in the southern parts of the island. My interest piqued, I ask if the pumpkins and potatoes are a regular feature of the curry. Lai nods with a smile, saying, “This is how we make it here."
I prod some more about the ingredients, and, after listing a few local spices such as star anise and palm sugar, he trails off, saying he’s not sure as he has never made it himself.
I let Lai enjoy his plate of chicken as I polish the gravy off my plate.
As soon as I step back on Ko Lanta, relief flooding my mind, my thoughts return to the Massaman curry and I decide to give it another go at dinner.
The dinner at a beach shack doesn’t disappoint and my friend and I are determined to learn more about the curry, now glistening golden, so rich and yet so flavourful and light. Predictably, we sign up for a Thai cooking class for our last evening.
Aon, a petite young local who runs the Lanta Thai Cookery School, tells us that the Massaman curry was introduced to the region by Persian merchants around the 17th century. The term Massaman, also known as Matsaman, originates from the word “Mussalman" and is popular along southern Thailand, where the Muslim population is more concentrated. Thai food expert David Thompson and Thai journalist and scholar Santi Sawetwimon say the curry’s origin can be traced to the 17th century in cosmopolitan Ayutthaya, Siam’s capital city, through the Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi. The Thai noble family of Bunnag are descendants of Qomi and the curry initially gained its popularity from use in the family’s kitchen. Other theories contend that Massaman is a southern Thai dish, influenced by Malay and Indian cuisine, or that its name is derived from the Malay word masam, which means “sour".
In the book Chillies: A Global History, Heather Arndt Anderson says the Massaman curry even had a song written in its praise. “The curry was so beloved by Thai royalty that its praises were sung in a romantic eighteenth-century boat song from Prince Itsarasunthon of Siam (later King Rama II) to Princess Bunrot (who he later married): ‘Massaman, a curry made by my beloved, is fragrant of cumin and strong spices/Any man who has swallowed the curry is bound to long for her.’"
The curry can be made with beef, fish, duck, lamb, tofu or vegetables. Pork is less common. The warmth of the coconut milk and all the aromatics make this a hearty winter dish that is eaten in the hilly areas of Thailand during the colder months.
Pouring a generous amount of coconut milk into a hot wok, Aon asks me to stir it continuously until the milk almost boils and starts oozing oil, and to continue stirring until all the milk has turned clear. Coconut oil isn’t used, Aon says, because milk is cheaper in these parts.
The Massaman curry paste is made from grinding together Serrano chillies, shallots, garlic, galangal, coriander root, lemongrass, shrimp paste, roasted coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mace powder, cardamom pods, cinnamon, kaffir lime zest, cloves and salt.
Aon says the paste should be added as per taste and I throw in a couple of spoonfuls because I prefer spicy. I fry the curry paste until it fills the palm-surrounded terrace with the fragrance of spices. I wait till the oil oozes out again before adding the chicken, following this up with another helping of coconut milk. Once the mixture starts bubbling, I add the wave-shaped potato chunks, chopped onions, diced pumpkins, a handful of roasted peanuts and a bay leaf. Next, I add some water, a bit of palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind juice and salt and wait 10 minutes for everything in the wok to be cooked till tender.
When I remove the lid, a slick, bright red layer of oil crowns the curry. I sit down at the table with Aon, who says the curry should soothe my soul and fire my imagination. Although Aon’s version of the curry doesn’t taste identical to the one I had sampled at the beach, it does just that.
MASSAMAN CURRY PASTE
10 dry red Serrano chillies, soaked in cold water and finely chopped
6 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
1-inch piece of galangal or ginger, chopped
1 tbsp of coriander root, chopped
2 tbsp of lemongrass, chopped
1 tsp of shrimp paste (store bought)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp coriander seeds, roasted
1/2 tsp cumin seeds, roasted
1/2 tsp mace powder, roasted
1 tsp kaffir lime zest
2 cardamom pods, roasted
1/2 inch cinnamon, roasted.
1. In a wok, roast on low heat coriander seeds, cumin seeds, mace, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves until they are richly fragrant. Remove and pound to powder.
2. To this powder add dry red Serrano chillies, garlic, shallots, lemongrass, coriander, galangal, kaffir zest, salt, and smoothen everything together to form a paste.
3. Add the shrimp paste and mix.
4. Heat vegetable oil in a wok and fry the mixture on low heat.
5. Finally, once the paste is cooked and you can smell the spice, remove from heat and let it cool. Once cold, transfer into an air-tight container and store in the refrigerator. The paste can be used for a month.