Massaman, a curry made by my beloved,
Is made fragrant by cumin and other spices.
Any man who consumes this curry
Is bound to long for her.
(Verses dedicated to Queen Sri Suriyendra of Thailand and written by her husband, King Rama II)
The massaman curry is one of the most popular dishes in all of Thai cuisine which, in itself, is interesting as it isn’t exactly native to Thailand. As the story goes, the making of this particular curry as well as its name comes from the Persian merchants who came over the Silk Route to Old Siam in the late 17th Century and settled there permanently. Unlike the more traditional yellow curries made with ginger and galangal or even the fragrant green curries made with basil and lemongrass, the massaman pays homage to its Middle Eastern roots with its potent mix of sweet and earthy spices and the fact that it is normally made with beef due to its halal origins.
Traditionally, a massaman spice mix (Thai: nam phrik kaeng matsaman) is made with cumin, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg, mace (a spice made from dried and ground nutmeg rind), and bay leaves. The resulting spice paste is fried in oil with finely chopped shallots before being stirred into rich coconut milk with a touch of sweet-tart tamarind for a wonted sharpness. It is so headily fragrant that, as shown above, the late King Rama II waxed poetic about a version that his bride cooked for him – and how the dish only strengthened his love and ardor for that noble lady.
I must admit that Queen Sri Suriyendra must have been quite a cook given her husband’s verses of praise for the meal she set before him. Indeed, it is said that this particular Thai royal consort made her own spice blends and insisted on doing her own cooking despite, I’d like to think, an army of servants at her beck and call. (Incidentally, she became the mother of King Mongkut whom most people are familiar with from the Broadway musical The King and I.) It takes an amazing sort of woman to do that sort of thing.
I, however, am not as confident with my spice blending abilities as that particular queen from the Golden Triangle. The only two spice blends I have memorised are pretty generic: the blend I use for Christmas gingerbread and the Moroccan-inspired one I use sparingly for grilled chicken or lamb. Full-blown curry mixes, however, I leave to the experts. This, of course, has led to my dependence on Japanese curry roux and this most recent discovery, the Kanokwan recipe pastes from Thailand.
Each packet is good for one stewpot’s worth of curry and is deliciously fragrant: heady and earthy with cumin and mace, a slight sweetness from the cinnamon and star anise. Cooked into coconut milk, it becomes a gravy that is both decadently rich yet cut just so by the faint sharpness of dried tamarind and fiery chilies.
It isn’t exactly orthodox to use it in a meatball curry, but I find that it transforms a standard-issue dinner viand into something decidedly exotic yet lusciously satisfying.
Now: if only I could get the lodestone of my existence to write glowing, praising verses about me and my cooking, I daresay I’d feel more than blessed…