Deconstructing massaman curry, Thailand's mellow classic

Rich and mild, this complex dish contains spices not often seen in Thai cuisine, reflecting culinary influences from across Asia. And the theories about its precise origins are equally diverse.

John Chantarasak's massaman, featuring beef short rib and Jersey Royal potatoes.

Photograph by Steven Joyce
By Rebecca Seal
photographs by Steven Joyce
Published 13 Feb 2023, 11:38 GMT

Massaman isn’t like other Thai curries — at least, not the well-known ones. Rather than being chilli-hot — like a green or red curry — it’s positively mellow, featuring ingredients that might seem more at home in a Middle Eastern spice market or an Indian kitchen than a Thai dish. Mace, nutmeg, cloves, cassia, bay leaves and nuts all play a part in this rich, aromatic, slow-braised dish’s distinctive character.

Massaman curry, as we now know it, probably started life in the 17th century, but its origins stretch much further back. Thailand, which was known as Siam until 1939, was never colonised by Europeans, but has been an important part of trade routes connecting East and West for thousands of years. Recent archaeological finds in Thailand provide evidence of this; they include coins, gems and jewellery that were originally produced in the Mediterranean, modern-day Pakistan and China before finding their way here. But it wasn’t just trinkets that were exchanged — flavours were, too, although exactly when, how and by whom is a matter of debate. 

“A version of massaman curry was first introduced to Thailand by the spice traders coming over from India and as far away as Persia,” says Saiphin Moore, chef and co-founder of restaurant chain Rosa’s Thai. “They’d stop over in the ports of southern Thailand on their way to China through the Malacca Straits. Since the curry landed in a region with a large Muslim community, the recipe has always called for beef or chicken. It uses spices you don’t typically see in Thai cuisine, but we make it Thai by mixing them with super-traditional ingredients like lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime peel. It’s a history of Thai food in one bowl.” 

Malaysian cooks may have had a part to play too. As chef Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun, founder of Paste Bangkok, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the Thai capital, points out: “At the time, the relationship between the south of Thailand and northern Malaysia was strong — both Thai and Muslim cultural influences were shared on both sides of the border.” 

Still others note that migrants from Persia, modern-day India and Pakistan also settled further north in the plains around what would become Bangkok, including cookbook author Leela Punyaratabandhu’s Hindu Brahmin ancestors. Her version of the recipe cleaves to the idea that massaman is more of a Bangkokian dish than a southern or Muslim creation. The word ‘massaman’ is probably a corruption of ‘Mosulman’, an archaic word meaning Muslim — so whether it was invented within, or brought to, the Muslim communities who grew to love it, it seems likely it was named after them. 

Australian chef, restaurateur and cookery writer David Thompson — a long-term resident of Thailand who’s studied its food for decades — has an even more precise theory about massaman. In his influential book Thai Food, he writes: ‘This style of curry is believed to have arrived in Siam with the first Persian envoy [Sheikh Ahmad] to the Court of Ayuthia in the 16th century.’ 

The earliest-known Thai written recipe for massaman curry dates to 1889, so if Thompson’s theory is correct, massaman would have been nearly 300 years old at this point. The recipe was written by Lady Plean Passakornrawong, a courtier’s wife who went on to write one of 
the earliest Thai cookbooks, Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa, published in 1908. Another source of early Thai recipes are funeral books — booklets given out at funeral ceremonies that memorialise the deceased and often include a favourite recipe. Many chefs have collections of these (Thompson has over 500, some dating back to the 1800s); those of Sheik Ahmad’s descendants, the Bunnag family, are considered a vital part of Thai food history.

Left: Top:

Curry paste ingredients include shallots, garlic, lemongrass and ginger.

Right: Bottom:

A pestle and mortar is used to break down the paste ingredients.

photographs by Steven Joyce

Although its origin story is a little unclear, there’s more consensus on the how it should be cooked — slow — and eaten — ideally, the day after cooking, perhaps with crunchy pickles on the side. It’s a home-style dish. “I see it as a weekend curry — a curry you make when you have time to babysit it,” says Punyaratabandhu.

The type, and quantity, of aromatics used may vary, but they usually include shallots, dried chillies, garlic, lemongrass, coriander root, coriander seeds, cumin, cloves, nutmeg, mace, cassia (or cinnamon) and Thai cardamom, plus shrimp paste and sometimes galangal or ginger. Most recipes require these ingredients to be roasted or toasted before they’re ground into a paste. This is then cooked in ‘cracked’ coconut cream (fresh, thick coconut cream that’s been cooked in a sizzling hot pan until it’s split and the water has evaporated, leaving behind the fat). The meat is usually seared separately, before being slowly braised in coconut milk, to which the aromatic paste is finally added. At the end, the curry is seasoned with palm sugar and tamarind water, plus — perhaps — a dash of fish sauce, giving it the classic Thai balance of sweet, salty and sour. (A common mistake outside Thailand is to use lime juice or even vinegar to achieve this.) 

“My mom loved to cook massaman,” says Bee Satongun. “She wouldn’t put in potatoes but she would use pineapple instead.” This is a common alternative, and at the end of braising the curry, some cooks season by adding tart-sweet pineapple juice instead of tamarind. “There aren’t a lot of versions,” says Punyaratabandhu. “Massaman is a dish that doesn’t usually depart from the normative version. Cooks don’t usually mess with it, and diners don’t usually expect them to, either.”

Although vegetarian and vegan massaman curries do exist, this is a dish traditionally made with meat. Punyaratabandhu advises using “tough, collagen-rich cuts” of beef, or chicken thighs or leg quarters, rather than boneless, lean cuts. The meat should soften in the curry, with the sinew and fatty skin lending flavour and richness. “Massaman is not meant to be an easy dish you can put together in under 30 minutes,” Punyaratabandhu explains. 

Alternatively, duck, goat or even fish are sometimes used. And while it’s served with rice or, in the south, even roti, it almost always contains a starchy vegetable. Usually potato, but English-Thai chef and cookbook author John Chantarasak says he’s tried a version with daikon in Thailand. “And I see sweet potato in massaman more and more,” he adds. 

Dak Wichangoen is one of the few top chefs who’s played with the classic recipe. Currently a judge on MasterChef Denmark, Wichangoen was previously head chef at Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, the only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant outside Thailand, where she created a deconstructed massaman. “My grandmother sold food at a market, including massaman,” she says. “Normally, you make it all in one big pot, but she never boiled the potatoes in the curry, and us children would help peel the steamed potatoes for it every morning, which gave me the idea to deconstruct it.” 

Wichangoen’s creation combined traditional massaman flavours with Western techniques. “I made the curry with beef cheek, braised in a stock with all the seasonings that go into the curry. We used that broth to make the curry, blended and smooth and almost like a French sauce.” The beef cheeks were thinly sliced and served with the noisettes of purple, white and sweet potatoes that had been confited in duck fat, plus both crispy and pickled onions, with the sauce added at the table.

This massaman may have been controversial, but it was lauded by diners. “Food is in evolution and doesn’t stand still,” says Chantarasak. “A lot of Thai food has mainly been known and cooked within Thailand, but as it’s branched out to new territories, people are starting to use local ingredients to cook those dishes, which always means a dish will move forward and change.” 

Left: Top:

Chopped ingredients are fried off before being added to the paste.

Right: Bottom:

Massaman is fragrant, but less overtly spicy than other Thai curries.

photographs by Steven Joyce

A historic timeline of massaman curry

16th century
Chillies are introduced to Thai cooking from the Americas via Portuguese traders who first arrived in what was then Siam in 1511.

Early 17th century
Sheik Ahmed arrives in Siam as the first Persian envoy to the Court of Ayuthia. It’s thought he may have brought some of the ingredients for massaman with him.

Persian Shiite Muslims are allowed to live within the walls of Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam, where they exchange culinary ideas with the city’s elites.

Lady Plean Passakornrawong writes her chicken massaman curry recipe, made with bitter oranges rather than tamarind or pineapple.

Late 19th century
Prince Itsarasunthon, later King Rama II, writes a poem, Khrueng Khao Wan, to Princess Bunrot praising the fragrance and flavour of her massaman.

Massaman curry comes top of CNN Travel’s list of the World’s Best Foods.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is accused of making a bad massaman when a photo he shares shows a parsley garnish and crumbled potatoes.

The meat in a massaman should be cooked low and slow.

The meat in a massaman should be cooked low and slow.

Photograph by Steven Joyce

Recipe: John Chantarasak’s beef shortrib massaman

“Most traditional Thai massaman recipes are time-consuming and complex, compared with simpler versions we encounter in Britain,” says chef and cookbook author John Chantarasak. “Don’t let that put you off, as the rewards are great.” White cardamom pods are usually sold in Asian supermarkets, but if you can’t find them, they can be omitted.
Takes: 3 hrs 


1kg beef short rib, cut into 10cm pieces (ask your butcher to do this)
5 tbsp fish sauce
1L coconut milk
8cm piece of cassia bark
2 star anise
4 white cardamom pods
dried peel of 1 mandarin (dehydrated for 4-5 hrs in a 55C oven)
2 bay leaves 
6–8 medium Jersey Royal potatoes, peeled
200ml coconut cream, plus an extra splash to finish
2 tbsp palm sugar
3 tbsp jumbo golden sultanas 
1 tbsp tamarind pulp soaked in 1 tbsp warm water 
2 tbsp crispy fried shallots

For the curry paste

1 tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp cumin seeds
2 cloves
1 mace sheath
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp white peppercorns
3 lemon grass stalks, root and outer husks removed, thinly sliced
8 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 large banana shallot, peeled and chopped 
2 tbsp chopped galangal
1 tbsp chopped ginger root
1 tbsp chopped coriander root or stem
10 dried long red chillies, deseeded and soaked in cold water for 15 mins
½ tbsp shrimp paste

Use waxy potatoes such as charlotte, anya, Jersey royal or new, rather than the starchy kind.

Use waxy potatoes such as charlotte, anya, Jersey royal or new, rather than the starchy kind.

Photograph by Steven Joyce


1. Heat oven to 160C, 140C fan, gas 3. Roll the beef pieces in 3 tbsp of the fish sauce. Set a hot dry frying pan over a high heat, then add the beef for 5 mins, turning until seared all over. There should be enough fat in the meat to stop it sticking. Set aside and reserve the rendered fat.

2. Add the cassia bark, star anise and cardamom pods to a wok and place over a medium heat. Dry-toast for 2 mins 
until deepened in colour and aromatic.

3. Transfer the spices to a large saucepan along with the coconut milk, dried mandarin peel and bay leaves. Bring to the boil, then immediately take off the heat. 

4. Add the beef to a casserole dish with a tight-fitting lid, then add the coconut milk and whole spices. Cover with a lid, then braise in the oven for 2 hrs, or until the beef is falling from the bone without completely collapsing.

5. Meanwhile, make the curry paste. Set your wok over a medium heat; add the coriander seeds, cumin, cloves, mace, nutmeg and peppercorns, and dry-toast for 2 mins. Transfer to a spice grinder and blitz to a fine powder, then pass through a fine sieve to remove any larger chunks. Set aside.

6. Return the wok to a medium heat, and add the lemon grass, garlic, shallot, galangal, ginger and coriander root or stem. Dry-toast for 10 mins then use a pestle and mortar to grind until smooth. Add the chillies, shrimp paste, your spice powder and 1 tsp salt, then pound again until combined.

7. When the beef is ready, strain the braising liquid through a fine sieve; you should have about 500ml. Leave the beef to cool slightly before slicing into 2½cm pieces.

8. Add the potatoes to a large saucepan and cover with lightly salted water. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 8–10 mins, until cooked through. Strain and set aside. 

9. Combine the coconut cream with the reserved rendered fat in another large saucepan. Warm over a medium heat for 3 mins, or until the cream separates and the thinner liquid evaporates. Add 4 tbsp of the curry paste and cook for another 5 mins, until incorporated.

10. Fry for 8 mins, until the mixture darkens and becomes fragrant. Add the sugar, the remaining 2 tbsp fish sauce and salt to taste, and let these cook into the paste. Add the reserved braising liquid, bring to a simmer and cook for 8–10 mins, until the sauce develops an oily sheen and has a pouring consistency.

11. Add the sliced beef to the sauce, along with the sultanas and cooked potatoes, and warm for 1 min. Remove from the heat and leave to stand for 5 mins so the flavours can develop. Gradually mix through the tamarind water, then transfer to a serving dish and top with a splash of coconut cream and the fried shallots.

Left: Top:

Beef should be cooked on the bone in a massaman.

Right: Bottom:

Coconut cream brings the dish together.

photographs by Steven Joyce

Food Stylist: Ellie Mulligan

Published in Issue 18 (winter 2022/23) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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