Massaman Curry

Massaman curry, kaeng matsaman,┬áis a Thai curry dish that is Muslim in origin. According to one theory, it originated in central Thailand at the court of Ayutthaya in the 16th century CE through a Persian envoy and trader. According to another theory, it originated in southern Thailand and its contacts with Arab traders. Due to its Muslim roots and therefore Islamic dietary laws, this curry is most commonly made with beef, but can also be made with duck, tofu, chicken, or, for non-Muslims, with pork (as pork is a forbidden food for Muslims, this variety is not eaten by observant Thai Muslims). The flavoring for Massaman curry is called Massaman curry paste (nam phrik kaeng matsaman). The dish usually contains coconut milk, roasted peanuts or cashews, potatoes, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, star anise, palm sugar, fish sauce, chili and tamarind sauce. Traders brought spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, star anise, cumin, cloves and nutmeg from Indonesia to the south coast of Thailand. The dish is served with rice and sometimes with pickled ginger or “achat”, an accompaniment made with cucumber and chili peppers macerated in vinegar and sugar. Standing out among the other curries in the classic Thai cuisine is the unique Massaman* curry whose name, according to an unsubstantiated theory is homonymic with an out-of-use word for a Muslim man (I’m still waiting for credible evidence supporting that theory). Regardless, all signs point to strong influence from the Middle Eastern and South Asian cuisines on this particular curry; i.e. the aroma of cardamom and cumin is more dominant, the heat more subdued, and pork is traditionally never the meat of choice. In our household, when I was growing up, Massaman curry was considered a “training curry” for children due to its lower level of spiciness compared to that of red, green, or panaeng curry. Just as the name of Marcel Proust is nearly always invoked whenever the French cakelet, Madeleine, is mentioned, a reference to a boat song composed by King Rama II, the poetically-inclined second monarch of the House of Chakri, almost always accompanies any Massaman-related article. This is because, due to the inclusion of Massaman curry in the bicentenarian song, we know not only that this rich, flavorful curry existed back then, but also that it was part of the royal cuisine in the early Ratanakosin period. The fact that Massaman curry is the first dish referred to in the opening savory section of the not-too-lengthy set of verses has also led to an assumption that it might have been one of the royal poet’s favorite dishes. The so-called boat song talks about how the thoughts of different dishes remind the poet of a beloved lady. The initial few verses wherein Massaman is mentioned (literal translation – “any man who has tasted (your) Massaman pines for you“) are the most well-known and the most often cited (unfortunately, not always accurately) among the modern readers. My guess is that while most of the other dishes or food items have become more and more difficult to find — some of them would even make young kids these days squint and go, “huh?” — Massaman has enjoyed its unbroken streak of popularity to this day. And readers of ancient documents, from my experience, tend to remember best things that are relevant to their present day lives.
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