An authentic beef Massaman curry is my favourite kind of Thai curry so there was no doubt I’d get around to making it sooner or later as part of our Year of Asian Cookbooks project. It’s the earthiness of Southern Thailand’s Massaman curry that makes this the most moreish of all curries. While the prep list is long and the cooking time requires the patience of a saint, it’s by far the most rewarding to make.
While writing up the Geng Gari Gai recipe for an aromatic chicken curry courtesy of Chef David Thompson I recalled that he always used to have a chicken Massaman (also spelt Mussaman and Matsaman) on his Nahm restaurant menu and not the beef that I always associated with this flavourful curry.
On our recent visit to the Chef’s Bangkok restaurant to interview him for some stories we’re working on, David told me that chicken was more commonly used in the curry outside of restaurants. I was always skeptical of the chicken version until I tasted David’s — it was brilliant — but I still preferred the slow-cooked beef version when I cooked at home.
There are different stories as to how this ‘foreign’ curry ended up a staple curry in the Thai cooking cannon. The most exotic story suggests it travelled from Persia to the Court of Ayutthaya in the sixteenth century. Another story goes that it was brought to southern Thailand by Arab or Indian traders. The use of popular Middle Eastern spices like cardamom and cloves is an indication of that ‘foreign’ influence, although in the present day recipes the use of Thai cardamom instead of Indian is preferred by most chefs because of its more subtle flavour.
Perhaps another indication of its roots in India, Persia (now Iran) or the Arab world is the version that uses lamb instead of chicken or beef. This recipe by Chef Ian Kittichai from his Issaya Siamese Club cookbook is one of my favourite lamb versions as he uses lamb shanks. You get the delicious flavour from the bones in the sauce and the lovely fall-off-the-bone tenderness in the meat that’s so desirable when making this dish.
Of course, being in Cambodia, lamb shanks are neither in the markets nor the supermarkets and is a special order item from a local restaurant wholesalers we occasionally sneak into, so I’ve used local beef instead and given how tough it is, I’ve cooked it for a really, really, long time.
While I’m using Chef Kittichai’s recipe, I couldn’t help but refer to David Thompson’s versions in his Thai Food cookbook as several things stand out.
While shrimp paste is almost mandatory in Thai curries, David uses no shrimp paste in his Massaman recipes, perhaps as a nod to the true origins of the dish. David also prefers to use cassia bark rather than cinnamon, which he says has a “richer and oilier flavour” that’s very well suited to such a powerful dish.
A quick note on toasting spices as Chef Kittichai roasts all of them off at once in this recipe. I have always wondered why chefs like David Thompson roast off all the spices separately, adding a lot of time to the making the dish. The answer was obvious when I asked David why he did it: “because they all take different amounts of time to roast,” he answered dryly. Of course.
Another thing to note in this recipe is the amounts of tamarind juice and fish sauce used. While Chef Kittiachai always says to add half the amounts of ‘seasoning’ (generally meaning things like fish sauce, tamarind or palm sugar) to begin to achieve the right balance, or rot chart in Thai, the amounts listed, in my opinion, are far greater than necessary.
I would start with a couple of tablespoons of both the tamarind juice and fish sauce and adjust as necessary as you go. As I have learnt from watching David at work in the kitchen on several occasions, perfecting a dish’s seasoning is really up to the individual chef.
As the flavours develop in a dish such as this over a couple of hours, you need to make sure you taste it often and adjust the seasoning to suit your palate — the recipe is a guide to get you to the point where you can make it your own.
Nam Prik Kaeng Matsaman (Massaman Curry Paste)
6 g coriander seeds
6 g cumin seeds
15 g coarse sea salt
1.5 g white peppercorns
30 g dried red finger chilli peppers
120 g lemongrass, finely sliced
120 g shallots, finely chopped
30 g garlic cloves
15 g galangal, finely sliced
3 g kaffir lime zest, grated
1 g kaffir lime leaves, finely chopped
20 g Thai shrimp paste
6 g coriander root
1 g white cardamom
3 g cinnamon sticks
1 g cloves
30 ml vegetable oil
0.7 g nutmeg grated
1. In a dry pan, combine the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, white cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, white peppercorns, dried red finger chilli peppers and coarse sea salt and cook over moderate heat until the chillis brown. Place the spices in a mortar and finely grind or use a food processor and blend until smooth.
2. Wrap shrimp paste in a section of banana leaf (or foil) and roast the parcel in a frying pan for one minute on each side. Remove shrimp paste from the parcel and set aside.
3. Pour oil in a pan and sauté shallots, garlic cloves, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai shrimp paste until slightly browned. Remove the mixture from the heat.
4. When cool, place in a mortar with the ground spices, and add the nutmeg, coriander roots and lime zest and finely grind or use a food processor and blend until smooth.
Note that this curry can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to five days.
Ingredients for the curry base
120 g Nam Phrik Kaeng Matsaman (Matsaman Curry Paste)
100 ml vegetable oil
1 litre coconut milk
250 ml water
80 g palm sugar
300 ml tamarind juice*
150 ml fish sauce*
20 Thai cardamom, whole
20 g cinnamon sticks, whole
Directions to make the curry base
1. In a saucepan, heat the curry paste and oil over high heat.
2. Add coconut milk and water and cook until boiling.
3. Reduce to medium heat, stir in palm sugar, tamarind juice, fish sauce, Thai cardamom and cinnamon sticks.
Ingredients for the Matsaman Neua (Beef Matsaman)
800 g beef shank or flank
30 ml vegetable oil
100 g potatoes, cubed and roasted or deep fried
50 g small shallots, whole, peeled and roasted or deep fried
2 g coriander sprigs
Directions for the Matsaman Neua (Beef Matsaman)
1. In a hot pan, add oil and sear off the beef pieces.
2. In a pan, bring Matsaman Curry to a boil.
3. Add beef to the curry and cook for two hours at a simmer.
4. The beef should be tender enough to pull apart with a fork, if not keep cooking for another hour or so.
5. When the beef is ready, remove from heat and garnish with coriander sprigs.
6. Serve with steamed jasmine rice on the side.
*Start with just a couple of tablespoons of each and adjust to your own taste as the dish develops.
This post is the latest in our A Year of Asian Cookbooks series. The last post was on a Southern Thailand Geng Gari Gai Aromatic Chicken Curry Recipe, courtesy of Chef David Thompson of Nahm Banbkok.