The first time I heard about Thai massaman curry paste, I knew a new recipe was in my immediate future. It was just too tempting to consider a curry paste with a fusion of what I consider traditional Thai curry paste ingredients with the warmth and sweetness of some of my favorite Middle Eastern and Indian spices. And I was certainly not disappointed with this one. The flavor profile of this massaman curry paste recipe leaves nothing to be desired.
Curry paste ingredients and context
When I first started exploring massaman curry paste, I knew it would require a lot of spices, but the good news is that everything is generally accessible. I used mainly whole spices when I could such as cumin and coriander seeds, rather than ground, as well as whole cloves and white peppercorns. My choice in adding a cinnamon stick rather than ground and grating whole nutmeg was to keep the spices fresh.
Types of curry paste
I don’t know about you, but I find curry pastes a bit confusing. If I’m in a restaurant, I might be able to decipher a bit about the spice level due to those cute chili peppers next to the selections and sometimes, you’ll find those same spice level warnings on packaged curry paste in the supermarket. But curry paste is so much more than just a spice rating. And let’s all be clear, one person’s secret recipe Thai red curry paste, doesn’t make it the only recipe. Despite that, there are few generals we can bucket when it comes to different kinds of curry paste.
At first glance, you’ll likely see three different kinds of curry paste just based on the color – green, red & yellow. If you look at their ingredients or ask the chef, you may consider that the only difference between green, red and yellow Thai curry pastes is the kind and color of the chilies used. While it’s true that the color of the chilies, the amount used, if they are fresh or dried, seeds in our out are the main influencers of the level of spice and hence those cute chili heat rating, there is more to curry paste than chili.
No foolproof heat indicator
When I started exploring various Thai curries, it became clear to me that the color, especially between the green and red, was not a foolproof way to determine the heat. Just because the green curry was much hotter than the red at my favorite restaurant didn’t make it a universal rule. Other ingredients and amounts can also influence the color and flavor as does ultimately the amount of the paste you use in your curry. Green curry paste for example, may have its flavor and vibrance influenced by the addition of cilantro (coriander), fresh kaffir lime and zest, as well as basil. And often the green chilies used are fresh rather than dried.
When I make Thai red curry paste and indeed when I developed my recipe for massaman curry paste, I relied on dried red chilies and I also used cilantro in both, but the amounts were seriously varied. The red used 10 dried red chilies and I cut that amount in half for the massaman and added ½ cup of cilantro as well which was a lot more than the red.
Enough chili, what about the other ingredients?
Remember that part about curry paste not just being defined by the color and the amounts of chilies? Curry pastes share common ingredients and their flavors while celebrating the differences that make them unique.
Yellow curry paste for example use mellow yellow chilies which lend to the color and there are a few of the usual suspects like ginger, garlic and lemongrass. But yellow curry paste, like the massaman curry paste we’ll be making today, has turmeric along with sweetness delivered with cinnamon and a touch of sweetener. Some recipes include coconut milk to further mellow it out. The yellow profile also includes cumin and coriander, two spices included in this recipe as well.
The massaman curry paste flavor profile
Massaman curry paste relies on our old favorites - red chilies, garlic, ginger and lemongrass, but there are a few new players that give it a unique spicy, not hot spicy flavor. The unique sweetness comes from the blend of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Cardamom, in the pod
Cumin, coriander seeds and cardamom included in this recipe give it a bit of Middle Eastern flare. When you’re off shopping for spices, chances are, you’ll readily find cumin seeds, but don’t get too excited if coriander and in particular cardamom pods elude you. I’ll be providing the ground equivalents so that you can still enjoy massman curry. That’s our ultimate goal.
To be honest, I rarely ‘shell out’ with cardamom pods, but I decided that this was the recipe was a good one to explore with. Cardamom is widely used in both sweet and savory dishes. I used it recently when making Bharat to season bulgur with vegetables, and it’s a must-have in garam masala blends and many curry powders. Although we mostly recognize it as that dusty yellow-green spice that occupies many of our spice shelves, cardamom comes from seeds pods related to the ginger family.
In order to use cardamom pods, you need to first break the shells and then remove the brownish little seeds that are contained within. The pods are a bit stubborn to break open, but if you’re in the mood to conquer something in the kitchen, it can be quite a satisfying experience. I used a heavy knife handle to get the job done, but whatever you use, try to avoid hitting the pods directly or risk someone finding you searching the kitchen floor as you retrieve your splatter of little cardamom seeds.
Flavor enhancing techniques
When it comes to spices, there is a difference between toasting them as opposed to using ground. When you toast whole spices, they release their natural oils and aromatics. Toasting for use a few minutes in a heated skillet gives you the most flavor bang for the spoonful. Try it and you won’t need to lean in to catch the unique smell of toasted cumin and coriander.
If you want extra flavor and not just heat from your dried chilies, toss them in the skillet along with the rest of your spices. I’ve discovered that if slightly char the chilies it deepens their flavors and really brings out the taste. This holds true even if you soak them afterwards to soften them.
The perfect blend
Like other spice blends and pastes, once you take the 2 minutes to toast the whole spices (including the cardamom), it’s just a matter of getting everything blended smooth. I’ve found that it’s easiest to do this in 2 or more stages, especially if you don’t have a high-powered blender or food processor. Start by grinding all the whole spices and dried chilies. Really break them down so that when you move to stage 2, which is adding all the other, wetter ingredients. Those latter ingredients make it a bit more difficult and a longer process to get the full blend and smoothness you desire. Another way to ensure that the process goes smoothly is to rough chop or slice the lemongrass, garlic, shallots and cilantro. You’re food processor will like you for not making it work too hard.
Making massaman curry paste is the kind of kitchen adventure I adore. The aroma of toasted spices, not getting hung up on how fine or precise the mincing or even the exact measuring. Tossing everything in the food processor and watching how the colors blend. My personal culinary chemical experiment if you will. And the result – uniquely delicious.
You don’t need to be a proper chef to create your own flavor experiments. Start with the flavors you like and consider what goes together, but don’t be afraid to try unlikely friendships. That’s really the concept of fusion – combining contrasting culinary traditions or techniques. That concept might pertain to some elements of transitioning to plant-based eating. New twists on traditional recipes and preparing them in healthy ways. Simple as that. Peace.Print
Vegan Thai massaman curry paste is a fusion of Thai, Middle Eastern and Indian flavors for a unique curry twist using easily accessible ingredients.
- 5 dried red chilies (I used the Thai variety, if you use the tiny bird’s eye, use just 5 as they are really hot)
- ½ tsp. white peppercorns (3/4 tsp. ground white pepper)
- 6 whole green cardamom pods (1/2 tsp. ground) – if using the pods, break them open and remove the seeds
- 6 whole cloves (1/3 tsp. ground)
- 2 Tbsp. coriander seeds (2 ½ Tbsp. ground)
- 2 tsp. cumin seeds (2 ½ ground)
- 1 cinnamon stick (1 tsp. ground)
- ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
- ½ tsp. ground turmeric
- ¼ cup chopped garlic
- ¼ cup chopped ginger
- 2 lemongrass sticks, just the bottom white bulb part, with the outer layer removed and then thinly sliced
- ½ cup chopped shallots (you can also use red onion)
- ½ cup chopped cilantro (coriander) leaves and stems
- 2 tsp. miso paste
- Heat a small skillet over medium and add the 5 dried chilies, ½ tsp. white peppercorns, cardamom seeds, 6 whole cloves, 2 Tbsp. coriander seeds and 2 tsp. cumin seeds. Toast the spices for about 2 minutes until they start to release their aroma. Stir them constantly and remove them from the heat so they don’t get too brown.
- Add the toasted spices to a spice grinder and break them down until they are fine.
- In a blender or food processor, add the spices and the rest of the ingredients until smooth.
- Use massaman curry paste to enhance the flavor of your favorite curry sauces, soups or stews.
- I based the nutritional information on making 6 recipes using about 2-3 Tablespoons of curry paste per recipe.
- I used Shiro miso, but you can use another kind if you like. If you don't have access to miso paste, you can use 2 tsp. soy sauce, although the miso is best to use.
- Curry paste stores really well in the freezer. I measure out 2 tablespoons, wrap them in plastic wrap or small baggies and then add them to a bigger freezer container or bag. You can add these small amounts straight from the freezer to flavor your recipes.
- I purposefully did not add salt because the miso paste will add quite a bit of sodium. You can always add salt to finished dishes if you want more.
- Category: Essential Ingredients
- Cuisine: Thai
Keywords: Thai massaman curry paste