Thursday, March 3, 2016

the awakening

Massaman Curry was a gateway food for me. In college, when I first started to eat a few things that weren’t either a chicken finger or a pizza (or a delectable combination of both), I had Thai food for the first time. I was totally doubtful. What if I hated it? What I didn’t realize at the time was that a well made curry and rice is the exact same kind of comfort food as my beloved Chicken Roll, just with a different flavor profile and delivery system (i.e. in a bowl, not rolled inside a crust of pizza dough). So one day I was downtown with my roommates we stepped into a Thai place on Spring Street, called something generically Thai, like Spice n Rice. Or just Rice, or maybe Panang. I can still picture their logo but cannot recall the name. Eager to be open minded, and already outnumbered in the vote by my roommates, I agreed to have some Thai. I ordered the same thing as Val, it seemed safe. Massaman Curry. I had low expectations. It surpassed and multiplied all of them. I left the restaurant thinking I was extremely mature, exotic and a total hot shit. “I love Thai food” I would then mention to anyone who would listen, in an attempt to prove my worldliness. I was obviously VERY mature. I lived in New York City and enjoyed Exotic Cuisines. I know this sounds kind of sad and sheltered, but you know this was the year 2000, food wasn't completely fetishized yet; and plus, I came from a town where the most exotic culinary experience growing up was the glossy Chinese food at Cathay Hanover.

Now, I am sure if I returned to the same Thai restaurant today, it may be completely sub par. But in my memory, it was a total culinary awakening and I’ve loved Thai curries, especially Massaman, ever since. I often judge the strength of any Thai takeout by two dishes: the Massaman Curry and the Drunken Noodles This particular recipe was originally in Food and Wine, I subbed out the chicken and potatoes traditionally found in MC for a vegan-friendly, protein dense meal that I was making for a friend who had just had a baby and needed some serious chow. I stirred in a bit of cashew and peanut butters to thicken what I saw as a very thin sauce and spiced it up with a little Sriracha. The end result was hearty, comforting and completely delicious, without a breaded chicken finger or pizza crust in sight. I am basically the MOST mature person ever now.


1 tablespoon ghee or vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne
¼ teaspoon dried, or ½ teaspoon fresh grated turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup chicken broth
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1 tablespoon cashew butter
½ tablespoon peanut butter (or simply 1 ½ tbsp. of just PB if you don’t have cashew butter) 
½ cup chopped cashews or peanuts
Juice of half a lime (optional)
Chopped cilantro (for garnish), optional

In a large braising pan or Dutch oven, heat ghee or oil over medium heat. Add onion and saute until fragrant, about 3-5 minutes, add garlic and saute an additional minute more. Add to the pan, the squash, sweet potato and chickpeas. Toss together to combine; then add in the ginger, five spice, cumin, cayenne, turmeric and salt. Stir together to coat the vegetables and beans with all the spices. Pour in the chicken stock and coconut milk and bring to a simmer. Let cook until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes at least.

At this point, the sauce will still be a bit loose. Stir in the peanut or cashew butter, whichever you have/prefer (I used both), and a squeeze of Sriracha, if desired. Fold in the cherry tomatoes and let the sauce reduce and thicken over medium heat for an additional 8 minutes or so, until the tomatoes have burst. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. I found this curry needed a little more salt, a little more heat and a bit of brightness, so I squeezed in the juice of half a lime to finish the sauce. Serve with brown or white rice and garnish with the chopped nuts and cilantro, if using.

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