For my entire cooking life, curries have been something I’ve enjoyed in restaurants, not at home. Part of the reason is all those exotic ingredients. Part of it is the notion that a truly great curry surely must come from fresh ingredients, just like truly great Western food does. Where would I ever find those ingredients? That’s why, when I spotted fresh turmeric at Whole Foods the other day, I decided to finally make some curry. From scratch.
Turns out most curries aren’t in fact made with fresh ingredients. Most are made from Byzantine spice mixes, cooked in unusual oils and simmered with vegetables I am not too familiar with. And, more specifically to my purchase, there are lots of curries that don’t use turmeric at all.
As it happens, this Thai-style massaman curry is one of them. So my addition of fresh turmeric is, while not crazy — I’ve seen it used in some recipes — apparently not traditional. Oh well. Why this curry then? Well, it goes especially well with red meat and I was in the mood to cook some venison.
I started where I typically do: foodblogsearch.com, which is a great online database for the recipes of food bloggers. It is a better way to hone in on good recipes than by using a straight-up Google search. I also have a few books on Asian cooking, and I asked friends what I needed to know about making curry.
I ended up adapting a classic: The massaman curry recipe in what may be the first Thai cookbook in English, Jennifer Brennan’s Original Thai Cookbook. Since Brennan first wrote that book in 1981, the ingredients required to make a good Thai curry have become easy to find: galangal and turmeric (both relatives of ginger), lemongrass, coconut milk, fish sauce, and premade curry pastes. I’ve used these premade pastes before, and thought they were pretty good, actually. Everything in them must be antibacterial or otherwise antiseptic, because they last in the fridge for more than a year. But I was betting my fresh curry would be even better.
Massaman curry is a Thai version of the curries further west, in Muslim Pakistan and the like. Massaman is, scholars believe, a corruption of “Muslim.” It is a yellow curry, often with potatoes and is not typically incendiary like most Thai curries. And unlike green curries, which are awesome with fish, this yellow curry is tailor-made for beef, lamb… or venison.
I have to admit I was a little nervous making this. I can whip up all sorts of Western food without a recipe. I understand these cuisines deep in my bones. Asia is not so second nature for me. So I hewed pretty close to Brannan’s recipe, adding a bit more chile and the turmeric, a few more potatoes. And of course, I used venison, too.
Ever worked with fresh turmeric? Um, I have some advice for you: Wear rubber gloves, and have hot, soapy water at the ready. Most of us know that powdered turmeric stains like a sonofabitch, but fresh is just as bad. It will even stain the allegedly stainless steel, albeit temporarily. My mortar and pestle is yellow now. I am hoping that too will be temporary.
Because this curry does not stew for hours and hours, you need to treat the venison or other meat in a special way. First, make sure the meat is completely free of all silverskin or connective tissue. Second, drop it into the curry maybe 5 minutes before you serve — just enough time for the chunks of meat to cook through, yet still be pink inside. If you cut it into thin strips, put the meat in as you serve; the curry’s carryover heat will cook it through like a Vietnamese pho.
So, how was it? How was my foray into the weird world of curry?
Surprisingly good, actually. It tasted like restaurant curry. Paying attention to detail helped, as did reading a lot of recipes beforehand. And while I loved the massaman curry paste I made, I must admit that the store-bought, premade ones I’ve bought in the past were just as good. Maybe when I get more skilled at this I can surpass them, but not yet.
Meanwhile, you’re going to love this curry. Exotic without being overly spicy, yet it is still, at its core, a meat-and-potatoes meal. Give it a go.
thai massaman curry with venison
This is a great curry for people who don’t normally like curry: It is a stolid, meat-and-potatoes meal that doesn’t taste as exotic as it really is. And if you use a premade curry paste, available online or in many decent supermarkets, you can make this in the time it takes to cook the potatoes.
I made this with venison, but you could use any meat, really. I’ve seen massaman curry served with everything from tofu to beef to chicken to pork, which I find amusing considering it is based on a Muslim curry.
Prep Time: 10 minutes, more if you are making the homemade curry paste
Cook Time: 35 minutes
- 7-10 dried hot chiles, Thai or Tabasco or piquin
- 6 cloves
- 2-inch stick of cinnamon
- 12 cardamom seeds, or 1/2 teaspoon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 4 bay leaves, crushed fine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 8 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup onion, minced
- 1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
- 1 tablespoon minced galangal, fresh or pickled
- 2-inch piece of fresh turmeric, or 2 teaspoons powdered
- 1 lemongrass stalk, minced
- 1 tablespoon lard or vegetable oil
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 1 pound potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch chunks
- 1 14-ounce can coconut milk
- 3 tablespoon fish sauce or 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- A 2-inch piece of cinnamon
- 4 tablespoons yellow curry paste (if not using the curry paste above)
- 2 pounds venison, trimmed of fat and silverskin and cut into 1-inch cubes
- Chives or cilantro for garnish
- If you are making your own curry paste, heat the tablespoon of lard and saute the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Let cool a bit and put into a bowl. While the onions are cooking, grind the chiles, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, bay leaves and salt into a powder. Put the spice mix into the bowl with the onions and garlic. Add the galangal, turmeric and lemongrass and mix everything well. Pound everything into a rough paste and set aside.
- In a large saute pan or wok, heat the other tablespoon of lard or vegetable oil and sear the onions over high heat. Toss well to combine, then don’t move the onions for a minute or two — you want some char on them. Toss again and let sear one more time.
- Add the potatoes, coconut milk, fish sauce, cinnamon and enough water to just barely cover the potatoes. Mix in the curry paste one tablespoon at a time and stop when it is spicy enough for you. Cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. When the potatoes are tender, mix in the venison and cook gently for 5 more minutes.
- Serve at once with chives or cilantro and a cold beer.