My Thai: Chicken Massaman Curry (Kaeng Matsaman Kai)

Leela Punyaratabandhu

If it's true at all that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, it's never truer than in the case of Matsaman curry in the context of 18th century Siam. And it's not just any other stomach we're talking about—it's a pretty eminent stomach.

Sometime in the early 1800s, a royal poet (and, apparently, a gourmand as well) penned a set of poems describing how exceedingly resplendent the dishes made by the hands of his beloved are and how each of them—be it the way it looks or the way its name sounds—makes his heart yearn for her while they're apart. It's a piece of literature that gives us a glimpse of the food scene in the early days of Bangkok.

Listed first among over 40 savory and sweet dishes, including meticulously-prepared fresh fruits, is—you guessed it—Matsaman curry (commonly spelled "massaman" in the U.S.). If my interpretation of the poet's love for this dish based on its initial position in the poem is exaggerated—and that's a possibility—I'd like to think that it's not by much.


Loaded with dry aromatic spices and fresh herbs, Matsaman combines what you love about Middle Eastern or South Asian cuisines with the typical Thai flavors. The harmony of sweet, salty, and sour is such a prominent part of this mild yet rich and full-flavored curry. Here's a dish that squashes the false notion that unless a dish is so hot and spicy it makes one weep and curse the day one was born, it's not good or real Thai food.

Much of the flavor in Matsaman comes from either bone-in chicken or tough cuts of beef that need to be cooked long and slow. For this version of chicken Matsaman, I use chicken drumsticks solely for the sake of convenience. But you can certainly use a whole chicken that has been cut into large bone-in pieces. The use of boneless, skinless chicken meat certainly won't mark the end of civilization, but it's not recommended.

When I use commercial Matsaman paste—and that's what we're doing here— usually throw in additional dried spices, the same ones already included in the paste, just to make the end result more fragrant. This is completely optional.

Matsaman looks complicated, but it's actually very easy to make. Give this curry a try. And if this results in a love song written for you by whomever you serve it to, I won't be surprised.