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How-To

Masmun, the Queen of Thai Curries

Pounding chile paste and making coconut milk take time, but the payoff is a rich and aromatic classic

Fine Cooking Issue 39
Photo: Scott Phillips
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During one of my annual visits home to Thailand, I wandered into a Muslim neighborhood on the bank of the Chao Phraya, the river that runs right through Bangkok.

 I felt like I’d stepped into another country—the golden dome of a mosque was shining, and all around me were men and women in traditional Muslim dress. Then I caught the familiar scent of simmering curry spices drifting from the houses. That aroma was a potent reminder of the huge contribution that Muslims from the Middle East (some of the earliest immigrants to Thailand) have had on Thai culture, and especially on Thai cooking. The Middle Eastern influence is particularly apparent in the complex combination of spices that make up Masmun curry, a hearty, saucy, red curry stew usually made with meat, whose seductive aromas, dramatic colors, and rich flavors make it the most treasured of all Thai curries.

 As you’ll see, real Masmun requires a good bit of advance work. But it’s worth it. The curry’s rich flavor comes from a combination of aromatics and spices that you’ll pound into a chile paste to serve as the flavor base for this curry, and for many Thai dishes. You can use canned coconut milk if you want to (I’ve included the proportions), but I’ll teach you to make fresh, which tastes better and will give you a much more delicious result.

Great Thai curry starts with great chile paste

The chile paste for Masmun curry contains 19 ingredients, so I’d start preparing them a day or two ahead before pounding it. You can pound the paste well ahead of cooking the curry: sealed and chilled, pounded chile paste will retain its marvelous pungency and flavor for a month. Refer to the timetable at right.

 To prepare the dried chiles for pounding, soak them in hot water with a pinch of sea salt for 30 minutes. This softens the pods and will lessen the sting on your skin as you remove the seeds and ribs. If you have sensitive skin or if you’re new to working with chiles, wear rubber gloves to protect your hands.

 To prepare the dried spices for pounding, refer to the recipe list and the photo below; you’ll warm each one that needs grinding in a skillet just until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Cool and then grind each spice in a coffee or spice grinder. Sealed in plastic, the spices retain their aroma for a day or two.

 To prepare the aromatics for pounding, refer to the recipe list on p. 63 and the photos below. You’ll be roasting each one (except the cilantro) with a little oil in a small foil pouch. They’ll keep for a day or two, each stored separately in a plastic bag. To pound the chile paste, see the photos on p. 60.

Tweak the chile heat to your liking

You’ve probably seen curry recipes that use both fresh and dried chiles, but Masmun curry uses only dried. The dried chiles give the curry its rusty color—and its spicy heat. While spice heat is an integral part of any Thai curry, the finished dish needn’t feel like the fires of hell unless you want it to. So before you begin pounding the paste, it’s a good idea to decide whether you want a curry that’s mildly spicy or intensely so.

 To control the spice heat, start conservatively: chiles vary (and so do palates). For moderate spice heat, remove the seeds and ribs from all but a few of the de arbol chiles; you can always add more spice at the table with the fresh chiles in fish sauce. For an extremely spicy result, leave the ribs and seeds in all but a few of the pods. For little or no spice, remove the seeds and ribs from all the chiles. You can also cool down the curry by decreasing the amount of white peppercorns called for in the recipe. (If you don’t like super-spicy food, don’t worry: the array of ingredients in Masmun curry still delivers plenty of satisfying flavors even when you remove the seeds and ribs from all the chiles.)

For the best paste, pound in a mortar

Chile paste ingredients must be pounded in the order specified in the captions on p. 60. The ingredients that need the most pounding go in first, and the sequence helps everything bind together to give you the best-textured paste. 

 A mortar and pestle gives the best color, aroma, flavor, and texture. I use one that’s about 7 inches in diameter; you can find them at Asian markets or in kitchen catalogs. A mortar and pestle is a good investment. Blenders and food processors are great tools, but the pestle’s crushing and smearing action releases essential oils and helps give you a smooth and aromatic paste, rather than a purée or a slurry. No other tool is as thorough—nor as satisfying to use—as a mortar and pestle.

 Minced aromatics and ground spices make the work go more quickly and will help you attain that paste consistency. Here are a few other tips:
•For best leverage, squat on the floor or choose a work surface about 10 inches below your waist.
•Set a damp towel under the mortar to keep it still.
•Stick to the sequence specified in the captions. This isn’t random: it’s an order that Thai cooks have perfected over hundreds of years.
•Pound up and down and in an even rhythm: raise the pestle about 10 inches above the mortar and then bring it straight down into the center. You’ll get a much smoother paste—and a lot less tired—with this motion than if you were grinding. A bigger swing is more efficient: it lets you use the weight of the pestle with more momentum and force, and it’s less tiring than smaller movements. Plus, a big swing helps you get good rhythm going as you pound, so turn on some music with a good beat.
•As you add items to the mortar, use a spoon to scrape and push the paste down into the bowl.

 A word on safety: keep your face clear of the mortar when pounding. You might even want to wear safety glasses until you get the hang of it. Hot chile paste really stings if it splatters into your eyes.

Prepare the fresh coconut milk ahead

If you must use canned coconut milk, it’s okay in a pinch. But making fresh is worth the time and effort—the flavor is much cleaner, the aroma is fresher, and the texture is more fluid. I love getting my hands in the pulp. Follow the photos opposite.

 Coconut cream and milk happen in two stages. The first milking gives you the cream; the second gives you the milk. You’ll use them both for the curry. Choose coconuts that feel heavy for their size and listen for juice sloshing inside. Again, streamline the cooking by working ahead. Frozen separately in ziptop bags, coconut cream and milk will keep for at least a month. You can roast the drained pulp for another time, to use as a garnish for salads and desserts. Sealed tightly, it will keep for a couple of weeks.

Meats are the best match for this curry’s intense flavor

To match Masmun curry’s big flavors, I’m using beef as the main ingredient. Lamb, chicken, or duck would be good, too. Stay away from seafood: it’s not as good a match for this hearty curry. When I serve this curry in winter, I like to add root vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, taro, and pumpkin, along with peanuts. Here, because it’s summer, I’m adding green grapes and kumquat or tangerine slices for their delicious sweet-tartness; pineapple and green apples work, too (omit the peanuts if you’re adding fruits).

 Accompaniments are the crowning touch, providing the balance of contrasts that’s the essence of Thai cooking. With Masmun curry, I like to serve fresh chiles in fish sauce for additional spice and salty pungency, and a light, refreshing cucumber relish (see the recipes). In addition,
•pickled garlic and pickled ginger, available in Asian markets, add coolness and pungency,
•a small salad of bitter greens adds crispness. Thai cooks use pennywort, but arugula or escarole (or a mix) is a fine substitute.

 Finally, enjoy each spoonful of curry and rice mixed with each of the accompaniments: you’ll be rewarded with new and wonderful flavors and sensations.

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