We would observe the ancient lady at work everyday.
She would be at the live counter of the kitchen, dressed in her immaculate starched apron, her name in Thai, embroidered in resplendent gold thread, observing every step of the still diffident interns, occasionally whispering advice into theirs ears, sometimes stirring the pot of curry as it stewed patiently on the furiously burning gas stove, checking if the consistency was right. Sometimes she would walk to the counter at the back of the show kitchen, where a motley crew of junior chefs would be frenetically busy with their mis en place – peeling, cutting, chopping or preparing the curry paste.
Nothing missed her eyes. Nothing at all.
Silence would descend, the giggles would cease, cellphones would mysteriously disappear the moment the young crew saw her approach.
But what my attention would be invariably drawn to, was this young lad, in his early twenties, his forearm adorned with a tattoo of an ominous tiger, tasked with preparing the curry paste, who would suddenly go on an overdrive and start pummeling the paste with renewed vigor. Only to look up to the matriarch, holding up the paste, nervous at what her reaction might be.
And I would be a silent spectator to these theatrics, day on day, the fragrance of the lemongrass-galangal-kaffir lime leaves perfumed curry wafting from the kitchen, the pot of curry simmering on the gas stove, the monotony of the pestle pounding the paste that lay in the caverns of the mortar.
One day, stoked enough by curiosity, I walked up to her asking why they never used an electric blender in the kitchen to blitz the curry paste. Surely that would save a lot of effort and time ?
An intern translated the question to her.
Radio silence for a moment.
Then a peal of child-like laughter.
Who ever uses curry paste that’s ground in an electric blender ? It doesn’t even taste like curry.
That broke the ice.
I would now greet her every morning, she would smile or wave back at me, recommend what we should be trying from the lavish buffet spread and on days, that weren’t too busy, even send specials, not included in the buffet, to the table for a taste.
One day, a fortnight or so later, I mustered courage to walk up and ask her if she could teach me how to make a Lamb Massaman curry.
The intern translated.
The master would only be too delighted to teach me how to make a Lamb Massaman curry from scratch.
I was elated.
And that’s the story of my Lamb Massaman curry.
Luscious lamb. Baby potatoes for company. The intoxicating perfume of that lemongrass – kafir lime leaves -galangal steeped curry paste. The numbing fire of chillies. The earthy sweetness of coconut cream. Stewed languorously over a mellow flame.
This is food at its decadent best.
Lamb Massaman Curry
- 750 g lamb curry cut
- 250 g baby potatoes boiled in salted water
- 150 g shallots
- 700 ml coconut cream
- 500 ml coconut milk
- 1/3 cup peanuts roasted and peeled
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 4-5 green cardamoms
- 3 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp tamarind paste
- 4 tbsp oil
- palm sugar or jaggery to taste
- salt to taste
For the Massaman Curry Paste
- 7-8 dry red chilies deseeded and soaked in water
- 1/3 cup onions finele chopped
- 2 tbsp galangal or ginger finely grated
- 4 tbsp garlic finely chopped
- 4 tbsp lemongrass finele chopped
- 4 tbsp peanuts roasted and peeled
- 1 tbsp coriander seeds
- 3 tsp cumin seeds
- 4-5 cloves
- 2 one inch cinnamon sticks
- 6 green cardamoms
- 1/2 of nutmeg grated
- 1 floret of mace coarsely ground
For Massaman Curry Paste
- Roast the cumin seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, cinnamon and green cardamom separately over a moderate flame. Grind to a fine powder. Add the grated nutmeg and mace.
- Take the onions, galangal, garlic, chillies, lemongrass, coriander shoots and peanuts in a mortar, add the spice powder and hand-pound till it forms a smooth paste.
For the Massaman Curry
- Coarsely grind the peanuts, keep aside.
- Dissolve the tamarind paste in 2 tbsp water, keep aside.
- Heat 4 tbsp oil in pan, sear the lamb pieces in batches till evenly brown. Keep aside. Fry the baby potatoes and shallots in the same oil. Keep aside.
- Pour the coconut milk in a deep bottomed pot, throw in the bay leaves and green cardamom., bring to a gentle simmer. Add the lamb to the pot, let it stew over a low medium flame, about an hour or so.
- Crack the coconut cream in a separate hot pan. Add the massaman curry paste to the coconut cream in small increments, cook over a high flame, stirring occasionally, till the curry paste is completely incorporated and oil starts getting released from the paste.
- Add the fish sauce, palm sugar (or jaggery) and tamarind water. Give it a hearty stir. Cook for 3-5 minutes.
- Now add the paste to the stewing lamb, throw in the potatoes, onions and peanuts, give it a mix.
- Add a cup of warm water, continue to cook over a low-medium flame, some 20 minutes or so. Adjust seasonings. Serve hot.