Thai Beef Massaman Curry

 

Thai massaman curry is one of my go-to comfort foods; it’s delicious, filling and easy to make. It tastes much richer than satay sauce or satay curries. If you’re feeling super lazy, I’ve written our a quick version of the recipe below. You can hunt down a Massaman curry paste to cut your prep time in half. Actually, most people I know who grew up on curries were used to them being made with bought in curry pastes rather than freshly made pastes. My family often also used tinned vegetables for their curries, so sometimes those types of ingredients can give a more authentic flavour. I’ve made this curry before with tinned small potatoes as well, and it tastes really good.

 

HISTORY

Massaman is a Thai curry that’s considered to be one of the most popular Thai dishes. However, it’s not so well known outside of Southeast Asia, the more world-famous curries being Red and Green. The word massaman (sometimes pronounced matsaman) is not a Thai word, and it’s thought that it originated from the ancient word for Muslims: musulman. An alternative theory is that the name originated from the Malay word masam, meaning ‘sour’. Particularly popular in Malaysia with its high population of muslims, this dish is commonly found in restaurants, as well as being a home cooked favourite.  Traditionally, this curry is eaten with rice, along with other dishes such as shredded fruit salads and baked fish. We just eat it all at once in a giant bowl.

The first written record of a Massaman curry was in 1889, where it was published in Lady Plean Passakornrawong’s “Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa (ตำราแม่ครัวหัวป่าก์)” cookbook. Her version of this curry included bitter orange juice, which is still commonly used as a variation of this dish today.

 

INGREDIENTS

Strangely, the spice paste that forms the flavour base of this curry is not commonly found in other Thai dishes. It relies on cinnamon, star anise and cloves to give a depth of flavour, spices which are offset by the lighter and zingier tones of more typically ‘Thai’ ingredients: ginger, lime and coriander. As with any spice paste, using a pestle and mortar to properly grind the spices and crush garlic and ginger in order to fully release their flavours is an absolute must. Toasting the seeds and spices for a minute in a dry pan will also alter their flavour and give you a deeper base to work from. Galangal is commonly added to this dish, and it gives a more ‘Thai’ dimension to the flavours if you choose to include it. You can use about an inch of galangal, crushed in with the garlic and ginger.

Massaman curry is usually made with either chicken or beef, and both are equally delicious. Other variants include lamb, duck, mutton, goat or just vegetables. Pork is almost never used due to this dish’s origins in Islamic culture, where pork is considered haram (forbidden).

There are two ways to make this curry – the quick way, or the traditional way.  I will explain how to do both below. The 15-minute quick recipe can be used for weeknights where you are really starved and just need something to eat soon that can be made as easily as possible. It’s worth cooking in the traditional way if you have the time. As with all curries, the flavours intensify and merge after a few hours. Additionally, using the cheaper cuts of beef such as chuck (braising) steak really elevates this curry to another level. If simmered for long enough, these cuts fall apart, giving a kind of melt-in-the-mouth texture.

 

WHAT YOU NEED

Where possible, try to buy local, seasonal and grass fed/ organic/free range ingredients. Apart from it being better to support local businesses and high welfare farming practises, it does make a huge difference to the taste of your food! 

1 tblsp groundnut oil

3 banana shallots, finely sliced

1 bay leaf

500g chuck or braising steak / 700g chicken legs and thighs, bones on

3 star anise

3 cloves

2 tblsp palm sugar

2 tblsp fish sauce

500ml homemade beef or chicken stock

300g waxy potatoes, peeled and quartered

100g salted peanuts

1 tin coconut milk

torn coriander leaves, to garnish

juice of 1 lime, freshly squeezed

 

For the massaman spice paste:

3 garlic cloves

1 inch fresh ginger

dried red chillies to taste – 1 pinch for mild, 2 for medium, 3 for hot

NB: Traditionally this dish is made with whole dried chillies, so buy the long red kind if possible. If you like hot food, use 3-4 chillies. For a medium heat use 1-2. For a mild heat, use one or half a chilli.

1/2 tsp salt

1 stick cinnamon

2 tsp coriander seeds

1 tsp cumin seeds

 

Prep time: 20 mins

Cooking time: 1.5-2hrs

Serves: 4

 

FOR THE QUICK VERSION

Prep time: 5 mins

Cooking time: 10 mins

For the quick version of massaman, set the rice going before you start preparing the curry, as it doesn’t take much time to cook at all. You should still add crushed garlic and ginger to your shallots while they are frying to keep a fresh flavour.  You only want to flash-fry the steak and brown it all over before adding the coconut milk so that it doesn’t overcook and become chewy. Stir the milk through until it’s heated and combined, but don’t let it boil – there should still be a layer of oil on the top of the curry when you serve it. Here are the substitutions:

Substitute chuck steak for a frying steak, such as flank or rump, cut into pieces.

Use a 400g tin of potatoes instead of the waxy potatoes.

Use a pre-made spice paste instead of making your own.

 

METHOD

  1. Make the massaman paste by crushing chopped garlic and ginger with a pinch of salt in a mortar with a pestle. Put the garlic and ginger paste into a separate bowl. Toast the spices and chilli in a dry pan on a medium heat for 45 seconds, then grind them finely in the pestle and mortar. Add the garlic and ginger back into the mortar with a splash of groundnut oil and mix well, so that it forms a paste.
  2. Heat the oil in a heavy-based pan or wok on a medium heat. Add the shallots and salt and sweat for 5 minutes, turning the heat down if the onions start to go brown.
  3. Turn the heat up high, add the beef and bay leaf, brown the meat all over.
  4. Turn the heat back down to medium and add the paste, stir it around so that it melts into the oil and sizzles, releasing the smell of garlic, ginger and spices. Pour in the coconut milk, fish sauce and stock, stir and add the palm sugar, cloves and star anise.
  5. Crush the peanuts a little with the pestle, and add those and the potatoes to the curry.
  6. Simmer the curry on a medium-low heat for 1-1.5 hours, until the potatoes are cooked through and the meat has become tender. I find that watching the consistency of the sauce is a good way to tell if the curry is done. When you first put in coconut milk, you will find that there’s a separate layer of oil on top, and once the coconut milk heats through this oil is absorbed. A proper curry will be cooked long enough for the coconut milk to release the oil again, so that it separates back out into an upper layer. To me, this is an indication that the curry is ready to serve.
  7. Squeeze over the lime juice and serve with white rice and coriander leaves.

 

ADAPTATIONS

LF – this dish is naturally lactose free

GF – this dish is naturally gluten free

V – use extra veggies such as carrots and cauliflower instead of the meat. Omit the fish sauce, add light soy sauce if you want a bit of a tang to imitate the flavour of the fish.

Ve – use extra veggies such as carrots and cauliflower instead of the meat. Omit the fish sauce, add light soy sauce if you want a bit of a tang to imitate the flavour of the fish.

 

 

 

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