Massaman curry (Thai: แกงมัสมั่น, RTGS: kaeng matsaman, IPA: [kɛːŋ mát.sa.màn]) is a rich, relatively mild Thai curry that is an interpretation of a Persian dish. Matsaman nuea (beef massaman) with potato, and also showing star anise, cinnamon and clove.
Massaman or matsaman is not a native Thai word. It is generally thought to refer to the Muslims with earlier writers from the mid-19th century calling the dish “Mussulman curry”; Mussulman being an archaic form of the word Muslim.
According to Thai food expert David Thompson, as well as Thai journalist and scholar Santi Sawetwimon, the dish originated in 17th century Central Thailand at the cosmopolitan court of Ayutthaya, through the Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi from whom the Thai noble family of Bunnag descends. 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”.
The curry is extolled in a poem from the end of the 18th century, attributed to Prince Itsarasunthon of Siam, the later King Rama II (1767-1824). It is dedicated to a lady who is believed to be Princess Bunrot, the later Queen Sri Suriyendra, wife of King Rama II. The second stanza of the poem reads:
มัสมั่นแกงแก้วตา หอมยี่หร่ารสร้อนแรง – Massaman, a curry made by my beloved, is fragrant of cumin and strong spices.
ชายใดได้กลืนแกง แรงอยากให้ใฝ่ฝันหา – Any man who has swallowed the curry is bound to long for her.
Due to its Muslim roots and therefore Islamic dietary laws, this curry is most commonly made with beef, but there are also variations on this dish using duck, chicken, mutton, goat, or, less commonly so, pork. As pork is haram meat – forbidden food in Islam – this last variant is of course not eaten by observant Thai Muslims. Vegetarians and vegans have created their own versions of this dish.
The flavors of the massaman curry paste (nam phrik kaeng matsaman) come from spices that are not frequently used in other Thai curries. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves, nutmeg and mace would, in the 17th century, have been brought to Thailand from the Malay Archipelago and South Asia by foreigners, a trade originally dominated by Muslim traders from the Middle East, Indian subcontinent and from the archipelago itself, but increasingly threatened by the Portuguese, the Dutch and French East India Company. These are combined with local produce such as dried chili peppers, cilantro (coriander) seeds, lemongrass, galangal, white pepper, shrimp paste, shallots and garlic to make the massaman curry paste. This paste is first fried with coconut cream, and only then are meat, potatoes, onions, fish sauce or salt, tamarind paste, sugar, coconut milk and peanuts added. Massaman is usually eaten with rice, in a meal together with other dishes. There are also traditional versions using oranges, orange juice, or pineapple juice as additional ingredients.
Furthermore, “Massaman Curry hails from the south of Thailand and is different from other Thai curries in that you can easily detect an Indian influence (notable in the addition of Indian spices such as cardamom, cloves, and nutmeg). At the same time, Massaman is also distinctly Thai, and has been a traditional part of the cuisine for hundreds of years. Use this warm and flavorful curry paste to create a wonderful chicken, beef, or lamb Massaman curry — or even a delightful vegetarian curry by adding wheat gluten or tofu plus lots of vegetables.” This explanation comes from a recipe for Thai Massaman Curry Paste. The recipe can be found at Thai Massaman Curry Paste Recipe on About(dot)com. Enjoy!
Thai Massaman Curry Paste Recipe
Prep Time: 30 minutes Total Time: 30 minutes Yield: Makes approx. 1 cup paste
To Store: Curry pastes can be stored in a jar or other covered container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks; freeze thereafter. When ready to use, add coconut milk to make a sauce, then add your other ingredients.
¼ c dry Roasted Peanuts, unsalted
2 Shallots, sliced
5 cloves Garlic, peeled
1-2 Red Chilies, OR substitute ½ to 1 tsp. dried crushed Chili
1 thumb-size piece Galangal (or Ginger), thinly sliced
1 stalk Lemongrass, minced, OR 2-3 Tbsp. frozen or bottled prepared Lemongrass
1 tsp. ground Coriander
½ T ground Cumin
½ t whole Cumin Seeds
⅛ t Nutmeg, preferably ground from whole nutmeg
½ t Cinnamon
⅛ t ground Cloves
¼ t ground Cardamom
2 T Fish Sauce
1 t Shrimp paste
1 t Palm Sugar OR Brown Sugar
1-3 T Coconut Milk, depending on how thick or runny you prefer your paste (save remainder for cooking your curry)
Place all paste ingredients in a food processor (or blender) and process well. To make a sauce rather than a paste, add up to 1 can coconut milk.
To use immediately, place sauce in a casserole/baking dish together with 1-2 bay leaves, plus your choice of chicken, beef, lamb, tofu/wheat gluten, plus vegetables. Add 2-3 whole bay leaves if you have them (this is a common ingredient in Massaman curries). Stir well to combine, and simmer in a wok OR cover and bake in the oven at 350 ºF until finished. Garnish your Massaman curry with whole roasted peanuts and fresh coriander. Lime wedges can also be served if your curry is on the salty side.