Have you ever had Persian food? you ought to! This ancient cuisine has been forged as a melting pot of many ethnicities comprising the area of modern Iran, in addition to interactions with cuisines of surrounding countries such as the Turkish and Caucasian. As much as this cuisine was influenced it has inspired other cuisines including the grand Indian.
I find the mastery use this cuisine makes of spices and fresh herbs non less than extraordinary and the sophisticated combinations of savory, sweet, and sour in its array of stews, such as Ghormeh Sabzi and Ghormeh Bedemjan, absolutely delicious.
In the ancient world, Persians were renowned not only for their food, and have gained fame as some of the world’s greatest traders.
A historical Sukhotai inscription dated AD 1292 and attributed to the legendary king Phra Ram Khamhaeng (“Rama the Bold”), includes hints to Persian presence in the kingdom. Ample evidence speaks to an established Persian merchants’ settlement in Ayutthaya (The second Thai capital) dating as early as mid 12th century. Persian presence had a major influence on Thailand in centuries to follow.
Back to Massaman curry… The word Massaman is derived from an archaic form of the word Muslim in the Persian language, namely ‘Mosalman’ and historical records point to its origin as a localized (in Thailand) dish cooked by Persians who lived in old Ayuthaya possibly around the 17th century. The dish gradually made its way into the repertoire of the Thai royal court cuisine and from there in modern times to the realm of communal.
Massaman Curry or ‘Gaeng Massaman’ แกงมัสมั่น is one of the most beloved Thai curries worldwide. Today it is a coconut-based rich curry with characteristics of slow cooking stews, with a darker brown hue and typically chunks of meat accompanied by potatoes and possibly onions. The curry’s flavor profile consists of balanced salty, sweet and sour tasted overlayed with an aroma of exotic warm and sweet spices.
Knowing its origin, we can take a closer look at some of the key pillars of this dish. Some of the meats commonly used are lamb, chicken, or beef this practice adheres to the Halal rules of Islam forbidding the consumption of pork meat. Whereas the use of clarified butter and possibly yogurt may have been the desired medium in which this curry should be cooked, prudent local adaptation had led to the choice of coconut cream and milk. Fish sauce has taken the role of salt, palm sugar and coconut milk impart sweet tastes, and tamarind puree acts as a souring agent that lightens and balances the taste.
The curry paste comprises dry red chilies, lemongrass, galangal (in some versions), shallot, garlic, and coriander root. Dry spices may include coriander seeds, cumin seeds, white pepper, cinnamon or cassia, clove, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, and bay leaves.
- A few roasted on charcoal and smoked potatoes
- A few roasted on charcoal and smoked shallots
- 1 cup coconut cream (to fry the curry paste)
- 1-2 cups coconut milk
- 1 cup of Massaman curry paste
- 2 tbs palm sugar
- 3-4 tbs light soy sauce
- 1 tsp sea salt
- 1 1/2 tbs tamarind puree
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts
- 1/2 cup of crispy fried shallot
- Kelp (seaweed)
- Dry shiitake mushrooms
Massaman curry paste:
- 10-15 dry red chilies roasted and de-seeded then soaked in water for 15 minutes
- A pinch of sea salt
- 3 tbs thinly sliced roasted lemongrass
- 1 1/2 tbs chopped roasted galangal
- 2 tbs roasted shallot
- 1 tbs roasted garlic
- 1 tbs roasted coriander root
- 2 tsp of roasted coriander seeds
- 1 tsp of roasted cumin seeds
- 1 tsp of roasted white pepper seeds
- 4-5 cm roasted cinnamon stick
- 3-4 roasted white or green cardamom pods
- 3-4 roasted clove buds
- 1/4 roasted nutmeg
- 1 piece roasted mace
- 1 tsp organic fermented soy and rice paste (replacing ‘Gapi’)
1.Make a stock of kelp and dried shiitake mushrooms. The kelp and mushrooms add umami layers of taste that further enhance the richness of the dish
2.Roast potatoes and shallots over charcoal until fully cooked. Let them char and acquire a smoky aroma. Set aside.
3.Dry roast or deep fry peanuts until they smell good and obtain a nice brown color. Set them aside.
4.Deep fry thinly sliced shallots until golden. Set them aside on a paper towel to drain access oil.
5.Roast the red dry chilies empty the seed and soak the chilies in lukewarm water for at least 15 minutes.
Finely slice and dry roast the lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic (keep whole), and coriander roots.
Lightly roast the dry spices in a pan on low heat. Remove from the pan and let cool. Grind the spices in a dry mortar and pestle or in an electric spice grinder and set the ground mix aside.
6.Add coconut cream to a cooking pot when the coconut starts crackling add and fry the curry paste on medium heat for a few minutes, until the oil separates from the paste add a little bit of the stock, and let the oil float atop. Gradually add thinner coconut milk and small quantities of the stock to keep the curry moist and not too thick and oily. Bring to a gentle boil.
Season with light soy, salt, coconut sugar, and tamarind puree. Taste and adjust to reach a nice balance of salty, sweet, and lightly sour taste.
7.Add the charred potatoes, shallots, and some of the peanuts to the curry and cook on low heat for a few minutes. Transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with more peanuts and the fried shallot.
Food for thought: For more diverse versions you may use ‘Som Saa’ (bitter orange) juice and alter the peanuts with almonds. In a Persian-inspired version, I have taken the liberty to use dried Persian lemons and sumac as additional souring agents, enriched the spice mix with roasted chili seeds, aniseed and dried rose petals, and used the rose petals as an additional garnish.