You know how it is this time of year—lots of obligations to the festive side of life. A few weeks back, we had a crowd of 15 for dinner. Not a huge gathering, but big enough to necessitate extra thought. I finally did it right: I made a vat of curry before guests arrived, allowing me time to mingle with friends away from the stove.
I’d been wanting to tinker with this recipe ever since I learned it in a Krabi cooking class last year. Massaman is an intriguing curry rooted in centuries of trade and travel. The name is thought to stem from the term “Musselman,” reflecting Islamic origins—and indeed, this curry is popular today in the southern Muslim regions of Thailand. The flavors mix traditional Thai curry herbs with the commonly dried spices of Indian dishes. Most likely, this fusion emerged along early Portuguese trade routes.
I’ve come across many Massaman curry recipes. In some, the shrimp paste is roasted, which adds a vital richness and smokiness to the dish. But in this particular Krabi recipe, all the herbs and spices are roasted—garlic, shallots, lemongrass, galangal, coriander, cumin, cardamom, cloves. It makes for the earthiest, most vigorous Massaman curry I know. My favorite part in making this recipe: roasting the lemongrass. It’s such a pleasant sight to see the spring-green segments of stalks with their lavender-colored inner swirls and the brownish edges that develop over the stovetop heat. The result is an aroma of burnt sugar.
So I played around, using ingredients available locally, and here’s how I ended up with a vat that feeds 15 (no leftovers):
Earthy Roasted Massaman Curry
(Inspired by the Smart Cook Thai Cookery School, Krabi, Thailand)
7 teaspoons coriander seed
3 1/2 teaspoons cumin seed
3 1/2 teaspoons black peppercorns
about 20 whole cloves
about 20 green cardamom pods
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
3 1/2 dried red New Mexico chiles (the big kind you’d find on a ristra)
7 fresh Thai bird chiles (use fewer if you prefer a milder curry)
1 cup peeled, smashed garlic cloves
1 cup peeled and roughly cut shallots
7 tablespoons roughly chopped lemongrass (outer layers removed)
7 tablespoons roughly chopped peeled galangal
1 cup cilantro leaves and stems, unbroken (ideally, you would use cilantro root, which is hard to find around here)
3 1/2 tablespoons shrimp paste
1 inch length of fresh peeled turmeric root (substitute powdered if fresh is unavailable)
salt to taste
5 medium potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped, boiled until barely tender
1 medium red onion, peeled and quartered
1 medium white onion, peeled and quartered
2-3 cans coconut milk
1/2 cup roasted peanuts
1/3 cup grated palm sugar
1/2 cup tamarind pulp
1/3 cup fish sauce
Juice of 2 or 3 fresh limes
5 pounds grass-fed beef stew meat
Fresh cilantro leaves
*Please note: when making such a large batch of curry, these amounts may vary depending on the quality, freshness and type of ingredient. You will have to taste and smell for a proper balance of flavors. Also, if you prefer: marinate beef cubes for several hours in a mixture of chopped garlic, fish sauce and palm sugar. Pounding the meat will help tenderize it, especially if it is lean and grass-fed.
Roast the coriander, cumin, peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and cinnamon stick until nicely browned but not burnt. I’ve found a Mexican tortilla pan is perfect for roasting spices on the stovetop; alternatively, you can use a cast-iron skillet.
Roast the chopped lemongrass until brown on the edges and fragrant.
Roast the shrimp paste. You can wrap it in foil, or watch it carefully so it does not burn on the pan.
Roast the cilantro until wilted. (If you do this after roasting the shrimp paste directly on the pan, the cilantro will acquire a pleasant salty flavor.) Chop and set aside.
Roast the galangal, shallots, garlic and turmeric until nicely browned.
Using a mortar and pestle (or food processor), smash all ingredients until they make an extremely smooth, fine paste.
Fry the curry paste 1 can of coconut until fragrant. Add the beef and stir-fry for a minute or two. Add remaining ingredients (using as much coconut as necessary to cover all ingredients; more will make for a sweeter, milder curry) and simmer until everything is cooked. Taste and adjust for a balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves, and serve with steamed rice.