Going with the Flow and Cooking Massaman Curry (with a different recipe) (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Feb 25
“Massaman curry is like a lover,” King Rama II of Siam (1768-1824) once wrote, “As peppery and fragrant as the cumin seed. Its exciting allure arouses. I am urged to seek its source.”
Those lines, quoted in Coleen Sen’s section on Thai curries, might be corny, but they connect well to our journey through Asian food history. They express our shared conundrum. In a world where recipes have flowed freely between kitchens and continents, and mutate rapidly, how do we pin down the authentic “source” of a dish?
I was recently reminded of this problem watching Jamie Oliver prepare King Rama’s delicacy. Oliver made a point of showing his viewers how to make “the most authentic Massaman curry.” He clearly felt it was an urgent task. Massaman curry is now all over the news. A few years back, CNN named it one of the Fifty Most Delicious Dishes ever created. As a result, the Thai dish is so popular it now comes in a can.
Oliver, however, wanted to give his fans a taste of the real deal: proper Thai cooking, made by a real Thai chef, and from scratch. No shortcuts, no labor-saving machines, and absolutely no cans.
So like King Rama, Oliver sought out the “source.” He invited a native Thai chef, a lady named Khun Saiyuud Diwong, or Poo, the author of Cooking with Poo and the winner of the Diagram prize for oddest book title of the year.
As Oliver looked on and the cameras rolled, Poo gave him an education. She showed viewers how it was done: how to pestle the aromatic spices, how to combine the pungent flavors, when to add the beef, the coconut milk, the fish sauce, the roasted peanuts, the bay leaves, and palm sugar. Oddly enough, her version had none of the cumin seed that had once made the king swoon. The result was nevertheless breathtaking: a rich curry, decadent enough to excite the passions of a king.
Struck by Oliver’s search for “real” Massaman curry, I did my own digging. I was curious about the curry. As Oliver pointed out, the curry “balanced” fresh local ingredients like lemongrass and gingery galangal with the sweetness of the palm sugar. It also blended the richness of coconut milk with the pungent umami of fish sauce.
But there were also surprises: the beef - that piqued my curiosity. According to Reid, the ancient Thais did not consume mammals, which made sense given geography. Why bother raising livestock when you have easy access to seafood? Besides, the curry’s seasoned with things like bay leaves and fennel, two plants native to the Mediterranean. There was also the name. ‘Massaman’ is a loan word, meaning Muslim, which hints that there might be an interesting story.
As it turns out, there *was* an interesting story. Some historians believe that the “source” that King Rama sought was none other than his consort. In her youth, the lady had sold sweets for a living and apparently cooked her way to his heart. What she brought to the palace, however, was not regular Thai cooking, but also foreign foods. In the context of Thailand, this would have included much more than the curry: but also biryani, samosas, and flatbreads.
Apparently, the woman’s family had been from the fallen kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767). Between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, Ayutthaya was a great metropolis. Its ruins, about 40 miles from Bangkok, are now a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracting foreign tourists.
Before its fall in 1767, Ayutthaya had boasted of a world-class capital, one that wowed early European visitors. The early modern Europeans compared it favorably to Paris, another city whose heart sat in the midst of a river. But Ayutthaya may have been much more. It had a sizable Persian community. The Persians intermingled with local royalty and sold carpets. Presumably, these seafaring foreigners also brought their Western foodways to Thailand. This is something suggested by the goat and beef in the Massaman curry, along with the use of aromatic spices like cinnamon.
Initially, I was taken by the story: A beloved, cosmopolitan woman was the source of this delicious dish. That was better than the myth about Marco Polo bringing back pasta from China. It’s spicy and sexy.
I was so excited that I began examining earlier versions of the recipe from the late nineteenth century. A hundred thirty years ago, the curry looked even more foreign than it does today. For one thing it featured cumin seeds, which had excited the king but were missing from Poo’s version. And I nearly fell over reading that the older recipes had once employed sour orange juice and raisins.
This, however, is where the story went off track. There were too many elements in the curry to chalk it all up to Persian influence. I saw ghee, an ingredient that screamed of possible Indian influence. Then there was the lard. Yes, the pig fat. Definitely a no no for observant Muslims. I started to wonder whether my Cantonese ancestors had also gotten into the action.
The ghee and lard made me realize Massaman curry was not just a Persian recipe with a few Thai flourishes or adaptations. The curry paste testified to multiple culinary flows.
The Persians, in fact, were not the only foreigners who had lived in Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya had been an international entrepôt. It had attracted South Asians, Malays, Chinese, Japanese, and European traders. The city also occupied a strategic position on the Indian Ocean Trade Route, also known as the Maritime Silk Road.
By the eighteenth century, that trade route had been operational for more than 1000 years. Like the land-based Silk Road, the Indian Ocean trade route connected Europe and East Asia. But it charted a southern maritime route, one that navigated through the Sea of Arabia, off the Eastern coast of Africa, and wrapped around the southern tip of India before heading through the Bay of Bengal. The trade route then snaked its way through the perilous Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia, before heading due north, to reach its final destination in coastal China.
To imagine the kind of place Ayutthaya had been, we only need to glimpse the riches recovered from shipwrecks off the coasts of Indonesia. One shipwreck, the Belitung, dates from the late ninth century. That vessel had been Arab, but the crew was once multi-ethnic. Another, from a couple centuries later, contained a classical Chinese foodstuff: preserved eggs, also known as thousand-year eggs.
The Indian Ocean Trade Route brought the world closer together. It allowed Europeans to consume and covet aromatic spices from India and Southeast Asia. It also helped the inhabitants of Baghdad enjoy Chinese porcelain, silk, and tea. And it encouraged Chinese royals to splurge on fine Western gold.
The continual flow of people left its mark on Thai foodways. The unique mix of aromatic spices, fresh local ingredients, pungent and fishy flavors feature in other Thai dishes — and not just Massaman curry. Take Moo Satay, which Chef Ryan Waddell once taught my students to cook (see below). There, the coriander and cumin seeds also mix with lemongrass and galangal. We also find hints of Indian accents in the turmeric powder. There’s also plenty of pork, which points to influences further north. The result: the best dish most Americans have never heard of. The satay sauce is so good, I spoon it on my rice and eat it like ice cream.
For me, the lesson to be learnt is this. Foreign influences were not static or stable packages, which can be easily isolated, or removed. Instead, they are best understood through water metaphors. Water emphasizes the dynamic character of foreign influence. Like waves or streams, foreign influences easily mingle, not only with local cooking styles but also with each other. The metaphor also reminds us that those influences literally arrived in Thailand by sea, in boats once manned by multiethnic crews who shared their food on long ocean voyages.
At the end of the day, the search for the “source” of Massamam curry isn’t much elusive as it is fluid. In the eighteenth century, that source lay not in the body of any single woman, nor in any one place or cooking tradition. Instead, Massaman curry was a group lift, one that brought together the foodways of people scattered across the globe. The curry is thus the brainchild of the traders and pirates who crossed vast expanses of ocean in search of spices and treasures. Echoes of those voyages centuries ago now fill our bowls.
Sources (not hyperlinked):
Chris Baker, "Ayutthaya Rising: From Land or Sea?" Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Vol. 34, No. 1 (Feb., 2003), pp. 41-62.
Kenneth R. Hall, A History of Early Southeast Asia: Maritime Trade and Societal Development (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).
Panu Wongcha-Um, "What is Thai Cuisine? Thai Culinary Identity Construction From The Rise of the Bangkok Dynasty to Its Revival." A Thesis Submitted For Degree of Master of Arts Department of History National University of Singapore.
Anthony Reid, Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680: Volume One, The Lands below the Waves (Yale University Press, 1988).
Colleen Sen, Curry: A Global History (Reaktion Books, 2009), 90-105.
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Amanda Respess, "The Abode of Water: Shipwreck Evidence and the Maritime Circulation of Medicine Between Iran and China in the 8th through 14th Centuries." PhD Dissertation (Anthropology and History), University of Michigan, 2020.
Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, Hot, Sour, Salt, Sweet: A Culinary Journal through Southeast Asia (Artisan, 2000).
David Thompson, Thai Food (Ten Speed, 2002).
Moo Satay Recipe by Chef Ryan Waddell
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 tablespoons finely chopped lemongrass
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chopped galangal (or ginger)
1 ½ teaspoons turmeric powder
Roasted chili powder to taste
1 cup coconut cream
1 tablespoon shaved palm sugar
2 tablespoons coconut or vegetable oil
1 pound pork loin
Bamboo skewers soaked overnight in water (to keep from burning on the grill)
4 each dried red chilis
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
Salt to taste
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
1 tablespoon chopped galangal (or ginger)
1 teaspoon finely grated kaffir lime zest
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 ½ cups coconut cream
2 tablespoons shaved palm sugar
½ cup coconut milk
1 cup finely ground peanuts
1 pandanus leaf (can use extract if fresh not available)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
Roasted chili pepper to taste
¼ cup white sugar
¼ cup white vinegar
1 small cucumber quartered and sliced
4 shallots sliced
2-3 bird’s eye chilis sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Yield: about 4 servings
1. Make the marinade: Roast the coriander and cumin seeds in a sauté pan until they become aromatic.
2. Use a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to make a powder. In the mortar and pestle or in a blender make a paste form the ground spices, lemongrass, galangal, and a pinch of salt. Add other powdered ingredients and mix well.
3. Add the coconut cream, oil, and sugar.
4. Cut the pork into strips that will fit on the skewers that will be used and add to the marinade. The pork should marinate for at least an hour but will be better if left overnight in the refrigerator.
5. The skewers should be soaked in water for at least 30 minutes in water but will benefit from and overnight soak. This keeps the skewers from burning when on the grill.
Note: the pork skewers should be cooked over a medium heat.
6. Make the sauce: If desired remove the seeds from the chilis before preparing the sauce.
7. Soak the chilis in water for about 15 minutes or until soft.
8. Toast the coriander and cumin seeds in a sauté pan until they become aromatic and grind to a powder.
9. Using a mortar and pestle or in a blender make a paste of the lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, shallots, garlic, and coriander roots; blend or mash each ingredient separately and add to the ground spices.
10. Heat 1 cup of the coconut cream in a small sauce pan and add the spice paste and cook for a few minutes until it becomes aromatic; add the remainder of the coconut cream and the palm sugar and cook for a further 2 or 3 minutes.
11. Stir in the ground peanuts and cook at a simmer for 5 minutes before adding the coconut milk to which pandan extract or leaves have been added.
12. Season with fish sauce and chili powder.
13. Make the pickles: Slice all the vegetables.
14. Cook the vinegar, sugar, and salt with a ¼ cup of water until the sugar dissolves.
15. Let cool and add the other ingredients.