I continually come back to Thai food almost every month. It is a cuisine that has much to offer in each and every season from light salads, grilled satay, comforting soups … and, of course, those curries. What I love, love, love about Thai food is how incredibly fragrant a cuisine it is. I can’t imagine a style of food that is better designed for an olfactory-driven foodie like myself.
Last year, I gave you my fragrant Thai green curry. It is a staple in the house for a very good reason. It is yumminess and hedonism all mixed together. But the one downside of that dish as a culinary creation is that it relies upon a store-bought green curry paste. I know, chefs and even restaurants the world over use pre-prepared curry pastes, but I have to think that if you use something out of a bottle, you’re not really ‘cooking’ … you’re just preparing.
As a result, when I set to re-creating another Thai curry, Massaman, I decided to make my own curry paste this time. Whoa — what is Massaman curry, you ask? You might be more familiar with the delicious green, red, and even yellow curries in Thai restaurants, but just as traditional is Massaman which, if you want to give it a colour, would be a ‘brown’ curry. Each type of curry takes its colour from the specific herbs, spices, as well as the ubiquitous chiles used in creating a paste. And it is these pastes that make Thai curries very different than those you meet in Indian food.
The origin of the Massaman curry, one of the lightest of the curries but also one of the most complex fragrantly, is a bit unclear. Some say its influence came from Persia and Muslims from the West — other writers indicate Malaysia. What gives the curry its rich, brown colour are the dark, sweet, aromatic spices … and tamarind.
If you’re like many, tamarind is either an unfamiliar ingredient or one you know but have always been wary of trying. It’s actually not that scarey an ingredient. Tamarind is a bushy tropical tree that produces a kind of fruit in the shape of pod. These pods, when ripe, produce a sticky, sappy fruit which would perhaps best be described as sweet-and-sour. It is used in cooking through a large part of Africa and Asia and is commonly substituted in North America with a combination of lime juice and some sugar. However, if you’re looking to be authentic, tamarind is a simple thing to use … and cheaply procured at most Indian/Asian/ethnic grocers (cheaper than limes out of season). It comes in a jelly like ‘brick’ looking like compressed figs … or, as I purchased mine, as a concentrate in the form of a thick paste. While both will work, the ‘brick’ typically includes the seeds and so will need straining before use. Some come with directions for reconstituting it, but my rule is about 1-tablespoon paste per 1/4 cup boiling water = 1 lime plus 1-teaspoon sugar.
Cooking Tips: There are a few additional tricks to making this deeply aromatic Massaman. First, roasting the curry ingredients, including toasting the spices, deepens the flavours and adds a richness to the spice and sauce. It takes a little longer, yes, but it releases the sugars and will elevate your sauce from good to great. Next, the key to keeping this sauce fragrant and relatively mild, is choosing your chiles for flavour, not for heat — and, even at that, remove the seeds. Some good choices are Pasilla (which is what I used) or a dried Ancho (a bit more smokey). Thirdly, save the bones — not the whales … well, save the whales too, but don’t throw away the chicken bones. These bones not only have residual meat on them, but the marrow will add a richness of flavour to the sauce that will make it oh-my-god good. Finally, for an even richer sauce, I used coconut cream, not coconut milk. Perhaps not as traditional, but oh-so good.
Yes, all of this prep takes some time, so, if you want, double the curry and spice ingredients and freeze the extra paste for another time. It really takes little more time to make more.
Finally, like so many stews, this is a dish that just gets better and better the longer it stews and sits. However, as tempting as it might be, don’t overcook this dish as the sweet potato will turn to mush. Reheated from the fridge the next day is the best.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 45 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
Fragrant Thai “Massaman” Chicken Curry
- 2 dried chiles, roasted
- 1/4 cup (60mL) shallots, roasted
- 1/2 bulb garlic, roasted
- 6 medallions ginger (“quarter” sized rounds), roasted
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon tamarind* paste
→ dilute this in 1/4 cup boiling water
* see “Cooking Note” above
- 1/2 teaspoon (2½ mL) cumin seeds
- 10 green cardamom pods, seeds removed
- 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) whole clove
- 1/4 teaspoon (1 mL) dried fennel seed
- 2 star anise
- 1 3-inch (7½ cm) cinnamon stick
- 2½-3lbs (1-1½ kg) chicken thighs (roughly 8-10 thighs), bone in
→ Substitute 3-4 chicken breasts if you don’t like dark meat
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) coconut oil
- 1½ cups (375 mL) chicken stock
- 13.5 oz (400 mL) coconut cream
- 1½ (375 mL) cups dry-roasted peanuts, divided
- 1 tablespoon (15mL) honey
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (to taste)
- 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
Serving Note: Serve over steamed Jasmine, black, or other rice of your choosing.
- Preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC). Prepare the “fragrant curry” ingredients by arranging them on a small stone baking pan. When oven is ready, place the pan in the oven. After 10 minutes, check on the peppers and remove them from the pan when they have puffed up. Turn the rest of the ingredients and place them back in the oven for another 20 minutes.Remove the now ‘crispy’ outer skin of the peppers — then gently cut them open and remove the seeds (unless you truly like it spicy).
Reconstitute the tamarind sauce by placing a tablespoon of the paste in a measuring cup and mixing in with it 1/4 cup of boiling water. Stir until paste dissolves. Set aside.
- While the curry ingredients are roasting, prepare the spice mixture by placing all the spices in a small frying pan and, over medium heat, toast the spices. The cumin, clove, and fennel will likely toast first, so remove these smaller seeds when done and continue to toast the larger spices. Alternatively, do them in batches (but this takes longer).
When spices have cooled, remove the anise seeds from the ‘stars’ and the cardamom seeds from their pods and discard the outer pods/stars. Set aside the the cinnamon stick for later.
Place the chiles in a mortar and using a pestle, grind them into a powder.
Add the cumin, fennel, cardamom and anise seeds, and the whole clove, and continue to grind until all are smooth powder. Set aside.
- When the roasted “fragrant curry” ingredients are ready …
… peel the garlic, skin the ginger, and remove the shallots from their skins and place them whole in a small food processor and purée.
Mix in the tamarind and about three-quarters of the curry spice mixture now.
→ Reserve some of the spice just in case it is too spicy.
And purée until everything is smooth and incorporated. Taste for spiciness. If not too spicy, add more/rest of the ground spice mixture. Blend again. Remove and set aside.
- Prepare the sweet potatoes by peeling them and cutting them into 1.5″ (3cm) cubes.
Then prepare the chicken thighs by removing the skin and, using a sharp deboning knife, remove the meat from the bones. However, SAVE THE BONES.
Heat large stainless steel pan over medium-high heat and add the coconut oil. When hot, add the chicken and the bones and fry until pinkness is gone.
When meat is cooked and browned, remove meat and bones and set aside.
In the same pan, now add the curry paste to the pan …
Bring it to a simmer and fry for about 3 minutes. Then add the coconut cream ….
…. And then the chicken stock and stir until mixed.
Then add in batches the sweet potato and 1 cup of the peanuts …
Add, finally, re-add the chicken, chicken bones, and cinnamon stick …
Simmer for 15-30 minutes, allowing the flavours to penetrate the chicken. You can now cover and keep it warm until ready to serve. The flavours, however, will continue to deepen and get richer the longer it sits. The curry is even better the second day.
Serve with tablespoon of dry-roasted peanuts, some freshly torn cilantro, and spoonful of rice (optional).
Wine Pairing: A perfect pairing with this dish rich with flavour and a bit of heat would be an awesome rosé like Karlo Estates Frontenac Gris Rosé. As if this dish needed more yum!