Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Thai Massaman Chicken Curry

 "The soup arrived, looking angry, with enough chilli in it to kick start an F1 car, therefore I thought I’d start with the salad"

So here we are, round 2 of this week’s series of posts, and this time round it's a recipe for Massaman Chicken Curry, or if you want to get all Thai about it, Gaeng Massaman Gai.

Like many of you I’m sure, I often sit and ponder some of life’s more meaningful questions.

  1. Why did my favourite Saturday night TV show, Last Chance Lottery with Patrick Kielty, get cancelled after one measly series?
  2. If I was an animal, what type of animal would I be?
  3. If I could only eat one type of food for the rest of my life, what would it be?
I don’t think I can provide an answer to the first question, it remains a mystery to this day. Second question; it’s a toss up between a male lion and a sea otter. Finally, and this is the one I have deliberated the most over, it would come down to a shoot out between Thai and French, which, when you think about it are not the most obvious bedfellows, but I love them both very much.

I’ll leave my eulogy to the French for another day, because today is all about Thai cuisine. My true induction into Thailand and Thai cookery (not unsurprisingly) came on my first visit to Bangkok, about five years ago. After stumbling out of my hostel, jet lagged and sweating profusely (I’ve never been anywhere so humid in my life), I ended up in a small out-of-the-way café in search of something to eat. 

Sitting down on my lonesome, I ordered Yam Neau, which is Thai Beef Salad, and Tom Yum soup. The soup arrived, looking angry, with enough chilli in it to kick start an F1 car, therefore I thought I’d start with the salad. Well…without exaggerating too much, eating it was like a punch in the face. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything so spicy, and yet so fragrant and delicious in my life. Despite the fact the Singha Beer didn’t seem to be able to put out the forest fire in my mouth and I was now sweating even more profusely, I couldn’t stop and polished off the whole lot in five minutes.

That was it, my conversion, and ever since then I’ve been a sucker for the hot, sour, sweet and salty tastes of all South East Asian cooking, but especially those from Thailand. I think it’s the freshness and vitality of it that attracts me the most; if French cooking makes you want to go to sleep, eating Thai food is like a kick up the backside. Even the curries, with all that coconut milk, still have a fragrance and lightness to them, which I find very attractive. 

All of which brings me round to today’s recipe, which is the aforementioned Massaman Chicken Curry. Firstly, a disclaimer: I can’t say this a truly authentic curry, and indeed a Thai person might scoff at it (although I would hope not). However, it was one of the best things I’ve cooked for a while and I would encourage you to have a go. The recipe can be easily scaled up or down, and if you make a big batch of the curry paste it would last a while in the fridge. Furthermore, it is often made with beef, and you can happily do this with just an elongation of the cooking time.

 Massaman Chicken Curry

(serves four)

For the massaman curry paste:

4 shallots or 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 tsp cumin seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
5 cloves
5-7 cardamom pods
5-10 peppercorns
Thumb sized piece of ginger (I have medium sized thumbs!), peeled and cut into chunks
3-4 garlic cloves, peeled
2 red chillies (adjust this in accordance with your tolerance to heat), roughly chopped
1 stick lemongrass
A splash of rape seed oil

  1. Start off by roasting the spices in a dry pan until they start to release their aromas, then transfer to a pestle and mortar and give them a good bashing.
  2. Then add the rest of the ingredients to a food processor, along with the spices, and blend until you have a relatively smooth curry paste. You can do this in a large pestle and mortar, but it will take longer and require a bit more elbow grease.
  3. Now move on to the curry itself.
For the curry:

Four chicken breasts, skinned and chopped
400g waxy potatoes, cut into chunks
1 cinnamon stick
1 stick lemongrass (optional)
2-3 tbsp Thai fish sauce
1-2 tbsp tamarind paste
1 tbsp brown sugar (or palm sugar if you have it)
1 tin coconut milk
400ml water or chicken stock
A splash of rape seed oil
1 portion massaman curry paste

  1. Heat up the oil in a large, high sided frying pan or wok, and then add the curry paste. Ideally you want to cook this for at least 5-7 minutes to allow the flavours to develop and become fragrant.
  2. Stir in the coconut milk and water / chicken stock and bring up to a simmer. Then add the potatoes, the cinnamon stick and the lemongrass (if using).
  3. Leave this to cook very gently for 10-15 minutes, until the potatoes are almost cooked, then add the chicken and simmer for another 5-10 minutes, and until the chicken is just cooked through. (It is traditional to add peanuts to this dish, but we didn’t have any. If you do, add them at the same time as the chicken).
  4. Now ‘season’ the curry with the fish sauce (salty), tamarind paste (sour) and brown sugar (sweet). It is this process which will give the curry the really authentic taste, and the right combination of the hot, sour, sweet and salty flavours which are the hallmark of this type of cooking.
  5. Add some coriander and/or basil if you have any, and finally dish up to your adoring fans.
Stage 1, frying off the curry paste
Stage 3, just added the chicken
And here it is, although pic makes it look like we ate in the dark!

I’ve previously made wine recommendations for the savoury dishes, but I’d probably prefer a cold beer to wash this down with. However, if you’d like a suggestion (and I’m following what Hugh Johnson says here) go for a Gewurztraminer, Verdehlo or possibly an Australian Chardonnay.


  1. WOW,tastes great. NZ sauv blanc goes well with it.

  2. Thanks for the comment Thai Taster, glad you like it.