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    Getting to Know Massaman Curry

    By Carolyn Brown, MS, RD


    I recently got home from a trip to Thailand. From the food to the Full Moon Party  it was an experience. Of course, what happens at the Full Moon party stays there (but… hello, Australians!).  Thai food, on the other hand, has made it back home and into my kitchen with the help of a Thai cooking class and a spunky chef named Pekan. I knew we were in great hands because pecans are my numero uno nut, but also because she believed in cooking wearing sequins, not aprons. True love.

    Pekan’s restaurant, the Bamboo Hut, is a little gem on the island of Koh Phangon. Until meeting her, my friends and I were under-enthused by our experience with Thai food. I will save our food poisoning experience (4 people, 5 bouts) for another post, but it’s a good thing I’m a stickler for packing travel snacks. So our sequined chef put us to work peeling and dicing, following the recipes in her head.

    We made Pad Thai and a few other typical plates, but the stand-out dish of the night, Massaman Curry, was brand new to me. If you’re new to curry, Massaman is a good one to start with — it’s mild and uses traditional Thai ingredients that your taste buds are probably semi-familiar with like lemongrass, Thai chilis (not spicy!), coconut milk and galangal (a really mild ginger-like root). I’ve been dreaming of that meal, and the beach, ever since.

    The curry paste is some extra work and you can buy it pre-made but it keeps really well frozen. Lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and shrimp paste are available at Asian market if not your local grocery store.

    This recipe from Cholada Thai cuisine and the L.A. times is almost identical to Pekan’s – enjoy.


    Massaman Curry with chicken

    Serves 4


    1 tablespoon vegetable oil

    3 to 4 tablespoons Massaman curry paste (see recipe below)

    1 (19-ounce) can coconut milk (the real deal coconut milk, unshaken so the cream rises to the top), divided

    1 large potato, cut into 1-inch cubes

    1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut into bite-size cubes

    1 cup whole raw peanuts

    1 tomato, cut into 1-inch cubes

    2 teaspoons brown sugar or coconut palm sugar

    2 tablespoons fish sauce


    1. In a large, heavy-bottom saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat until hot. Stir in the curry paste. Cook the curry paste, stirring frequently, until aromatic, 1 to 2 minutes.

    2. Stir in the coconut cream (the thicker liquid at the top of the can). Simmer until the oil separates, 2 to 3 minutes.

    3. Stir in the potato and cook, stirring frequently, until the potatoes just begin to soften, 7 to 10 minutes. Stir in the chicken and cook, stirring frequently, until the chicken cubes turn opaque on the outside, about 3 minutes.

    4. Stir in the peanuts and tomato and remaining coconut milk. Simmer for a few minutes to marry the flavors.

    5. Stir in the sugar and fish sauce. Simmer, stirring frequently, until the mixture darkens and the oil rises to the top, 15 to 20 minutes. If the sauce begins to thicken too much, stir in a little water as needed.

    6. Remove from heat and serve immediately.


    Massaman curry paste


    1 teaspoon coriander seeds

    1 1/2 teaspoons cumin seeds

    1 1/2 teaspoons cardamom seeds

    1 1/2 teaspoons grated nutmeg

    1 1/2 teaspoons ground clove

    10 dried Thai chiles, chopped (seed the chiles for less heat)

    1 to 2 cloves garlic, chopped

    4 ounces shallots (from 3 to 4 whole), peeled and chopped

    2 ounces lemongrass (about 1/2 stalk), trimmed and chopped

    1 thumb-size piece galangal, peeled and chopped

    3/4 teaspoon chopped kaffir lime leaves

    1 1/2 tablespoons shrimp paste


    1. Toast the coriander and cumin seeds: In a small sauté pan, toast the seeds over medium heat until aromatic, 2 to 3 minutes. Shake the pan frequently to keep the seeds from burning on any sides. Remove from heat and grind the seeds, along with the cardamom seeds, in a spice grinder, coffee mill or using a mortar and pestle.

    2. Transfer the ground seeds to a mortar and pestle or a food processor. Add the nutmeg, clove, chiles, garlic, shallot, lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. Pound the ingredients until finely pulverized with no visible chile pieces. Add the shrimp paste and mash to combine. (If using a food processor, drizzle in a little water as needed to purée the ingredients to a paste.) This makes about 1¼ cups curry paste, more than is needed for the recipe. The paste can be made up to 2 weeks in advance, covered and refrigerated until needed.

    Have you tried Massaman? Are you into curry? Any other favorite Thai dishes?


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