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There’s a kind of masochistic pride in determinedly finishing off a violently fiery curry, dropping the fork into the cleaned-out bowl with tears streaming down your face, nose running, and sweat dripping off your brow. But you don’t need to climb way up on the Scoville scale just to get wonderfully complex curry flavor. Massaman is a perfect example of that.
Although it’s now considered a Thai dish, massaman came to that country from the Middle East via trade routes and migration. As a result, it doesn’t share the intense chili heat of many of the red and green Thai curries you may be familiar with. Instead, it’s sweeter, thanks to the addition of palm sugar (though you can substitute brown), and relies on spices that are more warm than hot, like star anise and cinnamon. Chicken is the most traditional protein added to the massaman pot, although you’ll often find beef renditions as well. Potatoes are pretty typical, too.
Massaman curry paste is easy enough to find in your local specialty store or aisle, so there’s no need to make it from scratch (you certainly can—here’s a recipe for homemade massaman curry paste), though we do add a few extra spices of our own to boost the flavor of the store-bought stuff. We often use the Maesri brand, which comes in a small yellow can (you’ll need two for this recipe). Its ingredients include the usual suspects—lots of cardamom, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and, of course, chili. We add some star anise pods and a cinnamon stick on top of that, balancing it all out with a good amount of palm sugar.
Fish sauce, a Thai staple, gives the dish a distinct piquancy and savory depth. The whole thing is then made creamy with coconut milk. We also spike the curry with a Belgian-style wheat beer—that might seem like an odd ingredient here, but we find that its citrusy note and slight bitterness play really well with these flavors.
Skin-on, bone-in chicken is the common choice for this type of curry, but we chose boneless, skinless thighs, as they’re more readily cut into large chunks for easy eating. This cuts down on the cooking time quite a bit, which makes this suitable for a weeknight dinner. Thighs also have fantastic flavor and remain juicy and tender even after prolonged cooking, so they’re a great choice for this kind of long-simmered dish.
For the potatoes, we prefer the waxy, red-skinned variety, which hold their shape and turn silky when simmered, though Yukon Golds also work very well. You’ll want to cut the potatoes into large bite-size pieces, a little smaller than the chicken pieces, to encourage everything to cook through at the same time.
Depending on how fatty your chicken is, the curry may end up with a layer of bright red oil on top of the sauce. You can stir it back in before serving (it’s damned tasty), or spoon some off if it’s excessive.
We finish the curry with peanuts and fresh lime juice; adding them right at the end keeps the nuts crunchy and the lime juice sharp and bright.
Serve the dish with plenty of limes and cilantro on the side, along with some steamed rice. If you’re feeling ambitious, make some Thai-style crispy fried shallots to sprinkle on top.
And there you have it: a spicy, sweet, and flavorful curry that doesn’t require a damage waiver. Your spice-loving friends will need to find another way to exercise their taste for masochism. May we suggest parkour?