Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Curried Away (Massaman Curry)

To Aaron's distress, I absolutely love Thai food. Not that he doesn't, but I tend to take things to extremes. I'll recommend we order Thai takeout multiple times per week, sometimes on consecutive days (Aaron usually says no to that). I simply can't get enough. Thai food utilizes a number of flavors somewhat unique to Southeast Asia: fiery, licorice-y Thai basil, sour tamarind, darkly sweet palm sugar, citrusy notes from lemongrass and kaffir limes, and a somewhat surprising lilt of seafood from savory shrimp paste and salty fish sauce, which end up in almost everything. These ingredients combine to give Thai cooking, like many Asian cuisines, a spicy, sweet-and-sour character that was once prevalent in European cooking throughout the Middle Ages, but fell out of fashion in favor of the simply savory. One of the most familiar dishes to a Western audience will be curry - a dish decidedly lacking a Western analogue. Curries are soup- or stew-like dishes with rich flavors imparted from curry pastes or powders, themselves made from copious amounts of spices. Common throughout South and Southeast Asia, an Indian curry can often be identified by use of more dried spice powders and a thicker, richer texture, whereas Thai curry is often a bit soupier and relies more on fresh, moist seasonings (curry paste).


Further subdivisions of Thai curry exist, typically based on the color of the curry paste employed in their preparation, or the liquid used: water or stock in some cases, but most often Thai curries gain extra richness from the additions of creamy coconut milk. Red, green, and yellow curries are the most common curry varieties, with red and green curries being the most popular in Thailand itself. A somewhat different entry in Thai curry milieux exists in the form of Massaman curry (also spelled Masaman or Mussamun), which takes a few extra cues from Indian curries: using more dried spices (and varieties of spices a bit more common in India and the Middle East) and having a heartier, richer texture, typically aided through the addition of peanuts and potatoes. Massaman curry is most popular in the south of Thailand, on the Malay border, which has a higher concentration of Muslim residents and thus is known as a "Muslim-style" curry.

Hearty taters
Given the potential distant Arabian origins of the dish, I like to think of it being ladled out to  merchants as they traveled the spice roads through snow-bound mountain passes and chilly desert nights. This also makes it an excellent selection for the icy Americas, as this brutal winter buries us in snow and drops the temperature into the single digits. Very hearty and warming, it's the perfect pick-me-up for a cold winter's night. Owing to the selection at my grocery store, I had to sacrifice a few notes of authenticity in developing my home recipe: tamarind, for example, was simply not to be found so I opted for lime juice for sourness. I had to use galangal's cousin ginger rather than galangal, itself, and I left out the shrimp paste because sea bugs wig me out. The end result is still delicious, however, and manages to hit all right notes. The use of whole vs. light coconut milk is a matter of personal choice, but my perspective is I'd rather compromise by watching portion sizes and taking a walk than compromising on flavor.

Uncompromising: homemade curry paste
I also simplified this recipe a bit, removing some extra steps and condensing it from a recipe requiring two pots and a large wok to a single stock pot. In the name of even greater ease, you can take a shortcut by buying a pre-made Massaman curry paste, though instructions for a homemade batch follow the recipe for the curry, itself. The importance of whole spices is that, in their unground state, spices have less surface area exposed to the air, meaning their volatile oils are more likely to remain locked in, increasing flavor and potency. This is why it's usually better to always chop or grind your spices, cheeses, or vegetables at home, when possible, to maximize freshness and flavor. The delicate art of roasting the spices before blending the curry is likewise very similar to toasting nuts before using them, it deepens and "wakes up" the flavors, for even more gusto.

Wake-up call
Massaman curry (Thai Muslim-style curry)
I opted for the milder flavor of chicken, but in Thailand it's actually more common to make Massaman curry with red meat, such as beef, lamb, or mutton. For a vegetarian version, substitute cubes of tempeh or extra-firm tofu and add to the curry 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4-6.

1 pound chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized chunks
1/3 cup whole peanuts, unsalted
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 large sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1/2 pound butternut squash, peeled seeded, and chopped
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 tablespoons Massaman curry paste (recipe follows)
2 cans whole coconut milk
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon palm sugar (or dark brown sugar)
Freshly squeezed lime juice (to taste)

In a large stock pot, combine the chicken, peanuts, and stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring often, for 10 minutes.

Getting started
Add the remaining ingredients and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes more, until the broth has thickened slightly, the chicken is tender, and the vegetables are al dente

Cooking down
Taste and adjust seasonings with sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. The curry should be a little salty and slightly sour-sweet.

Serve over hot jasmine rice (white or brown) with slivered scallions and sprigs of fresh cilantro.

Massaman curry paste:
Depending on your market, substitutions may be necessary. If whole coriander and cumin are unavailable, you can skip roasting the coriander and cumin seeds and go straight to using ground (though this will reduce their potency somewhat), and 1-2 tablespoons of red chile flakes (don't bother soaking and de-seeding, in this case) may be substituted for the whole dried chiles. Yield: enough paste for 2-3 batches of curry.

1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
10 dried red chiles (ideally Thai), soaked and seeded
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, ground
1/2 teaspoon cloves, ground
4 medium shallots, finely sliced
4-6 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemongrass, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger root, minced
1 lime (ideally kaffir), freshly zested
1 teaspoon white pepper, ground
1 tablespoon sea salt

Preheat an oven to 350 F and pour the coriander seeds into a small, heavy cast iron skillet. Roast until highly fragrant and toasted throughout, about 7-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to encourage even browning.

Once the coriander seeds are roasted, remove them to a plate and repeat the process with the cumin seeds. As the cumin seeds are smaller, though, watch the cooking time: about 5 minutes.

Tip all the ingredients into a large granite mortar or small food processor and grind until combined into a thick paste. 

Sealed in an airtight plastic bag or carton, curry paste can be kept in the freezer, indefinitely.


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