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I'm happiest when the food I make becomes a backdrop to a lively conversation. When I'm not cooking, I'm traveling or dreaming about travel. Come sit with me, and enjoy! Read more here.

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Massaman chicken curry: epiphany of tannins and spice

As a red wine lover also addicted to Thai food, I’m often bummed that I can’t pair lemongrass, kaffir lime, and tamarind flavors with the earthy tannins of red wine.

When I recently spotted a Cook’s Illustrated magazine recipe for massaman curry, chocked full of mild, new world chilis, I wondered if this Thai dish could serve as an exception. I made the recipe twice. It was delicious (and paired well with red wine) but it tasted more North African than Thai as testers omitted the hard-to-find Thai ingredients of tamarind paste and lemongrass to make the recipe more accessible.

My curiosity about the traditional Thai dish, and its potential to pair with red wine, grew. A jar of WorldFoods massaman curry sauce, shipped from Amazon, offered up classically Thai flavors but was sickly sweet (sugar was the third ingredient) and thick as Thanksgiving gravy. I put a spoonful in my mouth and winced. The kitchen sink disposal ate the rest.

I combed through dozens of recipes to find out more about massaman curry. Dubbed the king of curries, it distinguishes itself with Islamic and Malay origins and offers a mellow heat with complex layers of toasted mild peppers, shallot, and garlic.

Massaman curry's smoky new world chili flavor strays significantly from spicy red, green, and panang curries while still grounding itself in the bright, classically Thai counterpoints of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and tamarind.

Once I incorporated those slightly sour, piquant ingredients back into the dish, massaman’s savory notes sang with Thai flavors. I paired it with a glass of zinfandel, and devoured it with my legs folded up on my futon, plate between my knees, relishing the flavors of Thailand. Even better: the zinfandel actually enhanced this complex curry, extending the couch time, and the bottle of wine further.

Massaman Chicken Curry with Bulgur

Most massaman chicken curry recipes add potatoes and suggest serving the dish with rice, which I avoid for reasons you can read about here. I prefer a less starchy meal so I omit the potatoes and serve it over bulgur instead, which holds up nicely to the curry flavors. Also, I strain out the fibrous (and often bitter or sour) bits of pepper skin, ginger, and lemongrass through a fine mesh strainer to produce a silky, more refined curry sauce.

Massaman Chicken Curry
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 dried birds eye Thai chiles
6 dried guajillo chiles
5 large shallots, skin on, split in half
1 head garlic, cloves separated, skins on
1 six-inch piece of lemon grass, diced
1/2 cup peeled and diced ginger
1-1/2 tsp five spice powder
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp pepper
1 TB tamarind concentrate
3 kaffir lime leaves or 1-1/2 TB lime juice
3 TB coconut oil
1 TB fish sauce
2 TB water
2 cups unsalted chicken stock (if using salted, reduce added salt at the end for seasoning)
1 can low-fat coconut milk (full fat coconut milk works well too but produces an oily sauce)
2 tablespoons  brown sugar
1 tsp of salt (or to taste)

1 cup Bob’s Red Mill quick cooking bulgur (follow package instructions)

1 TB cornstarch
4 TB water

¼ cup cilantro leaves
¼ cup peanuts, chopped
2 TB sesame seeds, toasted 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. On a cookie sheet lined with foil, toast the whole guajillo peppers for five minutes. Cool, stem, and seed the peppers. Tear them into pieces and add them to a food processor with the bird's eye chilis. Blend the chilis into a fine powder. 

Meanwhile, on the same foil-lined cookie sheet, broil the shallots and garlic cloves for about 8 minutes until blistering. Remove the pan from the oven and let the shallots and garlic cool. Once cool enough to handle, peel them and add them to the food processor along with the lemongrass, ginger, five spice powder, cumin, black pepper, tamarind concentrate, kaffir lime leaves (or lime juice), two tablespoons of the coconut oil, fish sauce, and water. Blend until it becomes a smooth paste.

In a medium-sized sauce pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of coconut oil and add the curry paste. Let the paste sizzle in the oil while stirring for about 30 seconds. Add the chicken stock and continue stirring. The texture should be like a thick soup. If too thick, add more chicken stock. Bring to a simmer and then turn off the heat. Using a fine mesh strainer and a separate bowl, strain the liquid through the mesh strainer and into the bowl, pressing the solids into the strainer to squeeze out all the liquid. It can take up to 10 minutes to whisk the solids into the strainer to produce the liquid. You should end up with about a half cup of solids, which you should discard.

Return the strained liquid to the pan and add the coconut milk, chicken, sugar, and salt. Simmer on low until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 minutes. If the sauce is too thin, combine cornstarch and water into a paste and stir into the sauce. Cook bulgur as instructed on the package. Serve the chicken curry over the bulgur and garnish with cilantro, peanuts, and sesame seeds.

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