One of the great things about Thai food are the rainbow of different curries, from yellow to red to green, each with their own unique flavors and character. But despite my love of Thai curries, my undisputed favorite is Massaman. Its use of ingredients not commonly found in Thai food such as potatoes, cardamom, cloves and allspice gives it a distinct flavor that’s truly addicting.
Like most foods, Massaman curry has many creation myths about where, when, and by whom it was created. One theory is that “Massaman” is an evolution of the term Mussulman, which is an archaic name for Muslims. Another theory posits that the name was derived from the Malay word for sour (“masam”), presumably due to the tangy tamarind juice in the curry. One thing that isn’t disputed is its Muslim roots, which is why Massaman curry is never made with pork. Whatever it’s origins, the unique blend of Persian spices with Thai aromatics, along with a nuanced balance of sweet, savory, spicy and sour tastes makes for a singular curry with a depth and complexity unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before.
While Massaman can be made with almost any kind of meat, I personally like to use large sinewy chunks of beef. By simmering the curry slow and low, it not only gives the flavors a chance to meld, it also renders the fat and connective tissue in the beef into a satiny smooth lubricant that makes each piece of meat melt away into its constituent fibers in your mouth.
As for the chili peppers, I like to use dried red chilies that are fruity and a bit sweet with a balanced heat that isn’t crazy spicy (you can always add cayenne pepper later if it’s not hot enough for you). For this batch, I used guajillo chilies, but you can use any dried chili available in your part of the world, that fits the description above, such as Aleppo, or Korean chili peppers.
Massaman Curry Paste
- Wipe and the chilies with a damp paper towel and then use scissors to open up the chiles and remove and discard the seeds and stems. Cut the chilies up into pieces and use a mortar and pestle to grind them into a powder along with the allspice. You can also use a spice grinder.
- To make the curry paste, add the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallot and coriander roots to the mortar and use a pestle to pound them into a paste. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, transfer the chili powder to a small food processor(if your food processor is too large there won't be enough mass to make this spin) and add the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, shallot and coriander roots along with 1/4 cup of water, and process until smooth.
- Put the tamarind pulp in a small bowl and cover with 1/3 cup boiling water. Let this soak for 5 minutes and then stir to separate the pulp from the seeds. Strain this mixture to get about 3 tablespoons of tamarind juice.
- Generously salt and pepper the beef. In a heavy bottomed pot such as a dutch oven, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil over medium-high heat until it's shimmering. Add the beef in a single layer. Let the beef brown undisturbed on one side (about 7 minutes) before flipping and browning the other side. Transfer the beef to a bowl.
- Add the cinnamon, star anise, cardamom and cloves and fry until fragrant (1-2 minutes)
- Add the curry paste to the pan and fry until it is caramelized and very fragrant (if you used a food processor and added water this will take a bit more time). Add the coconut milk, vegetable stock, fish sauce, coconut sugar and peanuts along with the tamarind juice and beef.
- Bring to a simmer, and then cover and turn down the heat to low. Cook for 1 hour and then add the shallots and potatoes. Continue cooking until the beef is very tender and the potatoes are cooked through (another 30-45 minutes). Adjust salt and sugar to taste with more fish sauce and coconut sugar.