Why It Works
- Toasting the spices and aromatics gives the paste smoky complexity and sweetness.
- Grinding dried spices and chiles in a spice grinder speeds up the pounding process.
Prik gaeng massaman, or massaman curry paste, is fundamentally different from brightly floral and fruity curry pastes like prik gaeng khiao waan, or green curry paste. While it uses a number of the same ingredients as other curry pastes—chiles, of course, but also lemongrass, coriander roots, shallots, garlic, and shrimp paste—it has a distinct flavor profile, thanks to the inclusion of warm spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, Thai cardamom, cumin, coriander, white pepper, mace, and cloves. But what truly sets it apart is that the aromatic ingredients in the paste are roasted, which draws out their natural sweetness and gives the paste its distinctively smoky aroma.
Toasting all of the spices and roasting the aromatics are the most time-consuming part of the paste-making process. To speed things up as much as possible without sacrificing quality, I suggest working in stages, and getting a helping hand from your trusty spice grinder. I start with dried spices and chiles, toasting them separately in a skillet until aromatic, and then pulverizing them in the spice grinder. You’ll be using a mortar and pestle to pound the curry paste itself, but there’s no need to wear yourself out grinding dried spices into a powder by hand.
For the fresh aromatics, the toasting process draws out excess moisture, tempers their raw pungency, and amplifies the natural sweetness of the alliums, and the light charring lends them a hint of smokiness. Cooking also helps soften them, making them easier to break down in the mortar and pestle. In fact, once all the ingredients are toasted, pounding them into a paste doesn’t take much time at all; since a lot of the water has been cooked out of the aromatics, it is much easier to create friction between them and the walls of the pestle than it is when making a curry paste with raw ingredients, like prik gaeng khiao waan. (The relative dryness of the ingredients also yields a correspondingly drier curry paste, as anyone familiar with Thai curry pastes will probably already know: massaman is significantly drier and stickier than the likes of green or red curry pastes.)
When pounding, it helps to occasionally scrape and flip the paste over with a spoon or spatula to make sure it achieves a homogenous, smooth texture. The resulting paste is richly spiced and smoky, and will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, or in the freezer for months, until you’re ready to use it in a homemade massaman curry.
- 5 Thai or Chinese white cardamom pods (see note)
- 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
- 1 piece whole nutmeg, broken into pieces
- 10 whole cloves
- 6 blades mace
- 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon white peppercorns
- 10 dried spur chiles (15g), stemmed and seeded (see note)
- 2 stalks lemongrass, bottom 4 to 5 inches only, outer leaves discarded, tender core thinly sliced (about 20g sliced lemongrass)
- 4 small shallots (75g), thinly sliced
- 3 coriander roots (10g), cleaned and thinly sliced (see note)
- 7 small garlic cloves (25g), thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (15g) Thai shrimp paste
- 1 teaspoon (4g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
Place cardamom, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a medium nonstick skillet and set over medium-low heat. Cook, tossing frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add cloves, mace, coriander seeds, cumin, and white peppercorns, and continue to cook, tossing frequently, until spices are fragrant and darkened in spots, 4 to 5 minutes longer. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Transfer to a spice grinder and grind into a fine powder. Transfer mixture to a small bowl, and set aside.
Add spur chiles to now-empty skillet and toast over medium-low heat until fragrant and charred in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Set aside to cool for 2 minutes, then transfer to spice grinder and grind into a fine powder. Set aside.
Add lemongrass to skillet and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, until dry and lightly charred at edges, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate or rimmed baking sheet and set aside. Add shallots to skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring frequently, until shallots just begin to shrivel and char at edges, 2 to 3 minutes. Add coriander root and garlic, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until lightly charred at edges, about 3 minutes. Transfer to plate with lemongrass, and set aside to cool.
Spread shrimp paste evenly in the center of a 10- by 6-inch piece of foil (or a 10- by 6-inch piece of banana leaf). Close foil to form a flat packet, add to now-empty skillet, and toast over medium-low heat, turning occasionally, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
Combine toasted lemongrass, shallots, coriander root, and garlic with salt in a granite mortar and pestle. Pound until a coarse paste forms, 2 to 3 minutes. Pounding thoroughly between each addition to break down and incorporate ingredients into the paste, add ground spur chiles, toasted shrimp paste, and ground spice mixture until a very fine, dry, sticky paste forms, about 10 minutes longer. While pounding, use a spoon to occasionally flip the paste over in the mortar to ensure a consistent final texture. Use right away or transfer curry paste to an airtight container, covering paste with plastic wrap pressed directly onto its surface to prevent it from drying out.
Thai or Chinese white cardamom can be found in Southeast and East Asian markets or online. Its flavor is both more floral and subdued than green cardamom's.
Dried spur chiles are a type of Thai chile known as prik cheefa haeng; they have a fruity, mild flavor, and are prized for the color they impart to curry pastes. They can be hard to come by in the US, but are sometimes available online. Alternatively, you can substitute puya or guajillo chiles, which are available at Central American markets.
The roots of fresh coriander (a.k.a. cilantro) provide a slight herbal note to curry pastes, but are unfortunately hard to find in the US, as they are often cut off from the stems before going to market (though local farmers markets in the summer and fall often have coriander with the roots still attached). Coriander roots can also be found at Southeast Asian markets. Although slightly less aromatic, we used the tender stems in this curry due to availability.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Curry paste can be refrigerated in an airtight container, with plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the paste to prevent it from drying out, for up to 2 weeks, or frozen for up to 3 months. Massaman curry paste freezes well due to its low moisture content.