Preparing Chicken Massaman

Chicken massaman with potato in white bowl on wooden table.

Chicken Massaman curry is a dish with deep cultural significance, originating from the southern region of Thailand but influenced by various cultures and historical trade routes. Its name, “Massaman” or “Matsaman,” is believed to have derived from the Malay word for “Muslim.” This hints at its roots in Islamic culture, as it was likely brought to Thailand by Muslim traders or settlers from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East.

The cultural significance of Chicken Massaman curry can be understood through several lenses. From an historical perspective, Massaman curry reflects Thailand’s history of cultural exchange and trade with neighboring regions. The dish’s ingredients, such as spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves, as well as nuts like peanuts, point to its Indian and Persian influences. These flavors were likely introduced to Thailand through trade routes that connected the Indian Ocean with Southeast Asia.

Thailand is known for its diverse culinary landscape, with each region boasting its own unique flavors and ingredients. Chicken Massaman curry represents the fusion of Thai, Indian, and Muslim culinary traditions, blending local ingredients like coconut milk and lemongrass with spices and cooking techniques from other cultures. It exemplifies Thailand’s openness to outside influences and its ability to adapt and incorporate foreign elements into its cuisine while retaining its distinct identity.

Like many traditional dishes, Massaman curry carries symbolic significance beyond its culinary appeal. In Thai culture, food is often associated with hospitality, community, and familial bonds. Serving Chicken Massaman curry to guests or loved ones is a gesture of warmth and generosity, symbolizing the host’s desire to nourish and care for others. Additionally, the rich, aromatic flavors of Massaman curry are believed to evoke feelings of comfort and contentment, making it a popular choice for celebratory meals and special occasions.

Throughout its history, massaman curry is considered a quintessentially Thai dish, despite its extensive multicultural origins. It has become deeply ingrained in Thailand’s culinary identity, beloved by locals and celebrated as a symbol of national pride. Its popularity both within Thailand and internationally highlights the country’s rich culinary heritage and its ability to unite diverse cultural influences into a harmonious and flavorful cuisine.

A serving for 2 people.

Ingredients:

For the Massaman Curry Paste:

  • 2 dried red chilies (seeded and soaked in hot water for 15 minutes)
  • 2 shallots (peeled and chopped)
  • 3 cloves garlic (peeled)
  • 1-inch piece of ginger (peeled and chopped)
  • 1 lemongrass stalk (white part only, finely chopped)
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1 tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons roasted peanuts

For the Chicken Massaman Curry:

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (cut into bite-sized pieces)
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 can (14 ounces) coconut milk
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 2 medium potatoes (peeled and cut into chunks)
  • 1 tablespoon palm sugar (or brown sugar)
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon tamarind paste (or lime juice)
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 kaffir lime leaves (torn)
  • 1/4 cup roasted peanuts (for garnish)
  • Fresh cilantro leaves (for garnish)

Preparation:

1. Prepare the Massaman Curry Paste:

  • In a food processor or mortar and pestle, combine the soaked dried red chilies, shallots, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, ground coriander, ground cumin, ground cinnamon, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, ground cardamom, shrimp paste (if using), and roasted peanuts.
  • Blend or grind the ingredients into a smooth paste, adding a little water if necessary to achieve the desired consistency. Set the Massaman curry paste aside.

2. Cook the Chicken:

  • Heat the vegetable oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat.
  • Add the chicken pieces to the skillet and cook until they are browned on all sides, about 5-7 minutes.
  • Remove the chicken from the skillet and set it aside.

3. Prepare the Curry Sauce:

  • In the same skillet or Dutch oven, add the Massaman curry paste and cook it for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly, until it becomes fragrant.
  • Pour in the coconut milk and chicken broth, stirring to combine.
  • Add the potatoes, palm sugar, fish sauce, tamarind paste (or lime juice), cinnamon stick, and torn kaffir lime leaves to the skillet.
  • Bring the mixture to a simmer and cook uncovered for 15-20 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender and the sauce has thickened slightly.

4. Finish Cooking the Chicken:

  • Return the cooked chicken pieces to the skillet and stir to coat them in the curry sauce.
  • Continue to simmer the curry for an additional 5-7 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked through and the flavors have melded together.

5. Serve:

  • Once the chicken is cooked and the curry is heated through, remove the skillet from the heat.
  • Transfer the Chicken Massaman curry to serving bowls and garnish with roasted peanuts and fresh cilantro leaves.
  • Serve the curry hot with steamed jasmine rice or naan bread on the side.

If you love Thailand then the infamous Chicken Massaman curry is more than just a delicious dish—it is a culinary embodiment of Thailand’s multicultural history, culinary diversity, and cultural identity. Through its blend of Thai, Indian, and Muslim influences, Massaman curry serves as a testament to the country’s openness to outside influences and its ability to create something uniquely Thai from a melting pot of cultural traditions. Whether enjoyed at a family dinner or savored in a bustling street food market, Chicken Massaman curry is a celebration of Thailand’s rich cultural tapestry and its love affair with food.

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