There’s a kind of masochistic pride in determinedly finishing off a violently fiery, hot-as-hell curry, dropping the fork into the cleaned-out bowl, tears streaming down one’s face and sweat dripping off the brow. Frankly, in Britain, it’s a rite of passage. Often, though, wonderful, complex flavors are found much lower down on the Scoville scale. When exploring cuisines, we like to look for the exception, the dish that provides the intense flavors – warmth and sweetness – without actually causing us physical pain. After all, you want to actually enjoy your dinner without necessarily feeling that you’re going ten rounds with a ghost chili.
Massaman Curry is one of those mild exceptions. Although it’s now considered a Thai dish, it came to that country from Middle East trade routes and immigration, so it doesn’t share the same spice profile as the chili-heavy red and green variations that you may be familiar with. Instead, it’s sweeter – we used palm sugar (but you can substitute brown) and relies on spices that are more warm than hot, like star anise and cinnamon. Chicken massaman is the most traditional version, although you will often find it as a beef curry.
Massaman curry paste is easy enough to find at your local specialty store or aisle, so there’s no need to make it from scratch, though we do add a few extra spices of our own to boost the flavor. We used Maesri brand, which comes in a small yellow can (you’ll need two for this recipe). It makes use of the usual suspects – lots of cardamom, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, and of course, chili – and also we add extra star anise and cinnamon, as well as a good amount of palm sugar for that necessary sweetness. Fish sauce, a Thai staple, gives the dish a distinct piquancy, and the whole thing is made creamy with coconut milk. While a Belgian-style wheat beer might seem like an odd ingredient here, it has a citrusy note and slight bitterness that plays 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 that we cut into large chunks. This cuts down on the cooking time quite a bit, which makes this suitable for a weeknight dinner. It also eliminates some of the fat that which can lead this type of curry to sometimes taste oily and overly heavy. Thighs also happen to have fantastic flavor, and become tender quickly without the risk of drying out.
For the potatoes, we prefer the waxy, red-skinned variety which hold their shape and turn silky when simmered, though Yukon Gold potatoes also work very well. You’ll want to cut the potatoes into large bite-sized pieces, a little smaller than the chicken, to encourage everything to cook through at the same time.
The red onions wedges get browned first; normally we try to avoid darkening onions too much when used as a base, but we actually felt we could be a little aggressive with them here. Once they’re softened and dark in spots, we remove them from the pan and set them aside. This keeps them from turning murky, allowing them to keep some of their sweetness and gorgeous color. You’ll add them back towards the end of the process. Then the paste gets a good toasting which releases the oils in the spices, the liquid components are added, along with the additional spices and finally the chicken and potatoes. Once you start the simmering process, get your rice underway so it’ll be ready when the curry is done.
Depending on the fattiness of your chicken and coconut milk, you might have a little layer of bright red oil on top of the sauce – if it’s just a little you can stir this back in, since it’s tasty, but feel free to spoon it off if you have excessive amounts. At this stage, mix in the peanuts and lime juice (citrus juice will become bitter if added earlier in the process). Oh, and don’t forget to remove the cinnamon stick and star anise!
Serve the chicken massaman with plenty of limes and cilantro on the side (and spicy sambal chili sauce for those that simply must have heat). Steamed rice, of course (jasmine if you have it), and if you’re feeling ambitious, make some Thai-style crispy fried shallots to sprinkle over the top.
And there you have it. A spicy, sweet and flavorful chicken massaman curry that doesn’t need a damage waiver. Your spice-loving friends will need to find another way to exercise their taste for masochism. May I suggest parkour?
Chicken Massaman Curry with Wheat Beer and Crispy Shallots
- 1 tablespoon 15ml vegetable oil
- 2 medium red onions about 3/4 lb., cut pole to pole into 8 wedges each
- 8 ounces 300g massaman curry paste (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 bottle 12 ounces Belgian-style wheat beer
- 1 14 ounce can unsweetened coconut milk
- 3/4 cup 175ml low sodium chicken stock
- 3 tablespoons 45ml fish sauce
- 2 1/2 tablespoons 30g palm or light brown sugar
- 2 star anise pods
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 8 -10 boneless-skinless chicken thighs cut into large chunks (about 3 lb., 1.5kg))
- 1.5 lb. red-skin potatoes or Yukon Gold cut into large chunks
- 1/2 cup 75g roasted unsalted peanuts
- 3 tablespoons 45ml fresh lime juice (about 2 limes), more lime for garnish
- 1 cup cilantro lightly packed leaves and tender stems, for garnish
- Heat oil in a Dutch oven or large heavy pot over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add onions and cook, turning once until soft and golden brown in spots but not fully cooked, 5–8 minutes; transfer to plate.
- Add curry paste to pot and cook, while stirring, for 2 minutes. Stir in beer and bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until reduced by half, about 5 minutes. Add coconut milk, stock, fish sauce, sugar, star anise, cinnamon. chicken and potatoes. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Add onions back in and continue simmering with the cover off, until potatoes are tender and chicken is cooked through but not falling apart, 15 to 20 minutes. Turn off heat and remove star anise and cinnamon stick. Spoon off any excess fat on the surface, if needed. Stir in peanuts and lime juice, and season to taste with salt, if needed.