Sunday, 13 November 2011

Mussaman beef curry

It’s always a pleasure when the first foray into a new cookbook completely vindicates its purchase. We had talked about buying Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey for a long time, but I had thrown up all sorts of objections: that the recipes wouldn’t be as good as the two from the book we had already tried online, that they would be too complicated to be made regularly, that we should buy cookbooks written by life-long experts in particular Asian cuisines, not a catch-all associated with a (admittedly hugely informative and enjoyable) TV show, that our cookbook shelf was already full.

We may need to impose a one-in, one-out policy, but on the basis of last night’s dinner alone, this book well deserves a spot on the shelf. After this summer, I was particularly excited about the chapters on Balinese and Malaysian food, and had already bookmarked recipes for the fish curry with okra and tomato that was a favourite in Penang, and the different satays which I ate across Bali. The main dish we ended up choosing, however, was a Thai classic: beef mussaman curry.

The preparation began with a method I’ve never come across before: an initial two hour cooking of the meat with just coconut milk, cinnamon bark and black cardamom, the last of which lent a smoky, almost funky aroma. The fattiness of the coconut milk kept the meat moist, while the liquid reduced and took on a nutty flavour and hue. With about 45 minutes to go, cubed potatoes, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar and a curry paste were added. Combining relatively mild heat with warm spices such as coriander, cumin, cloves, cinnamon and mace, pungency in the form of shrimp paste, and freshness from ginger and lemongrass, the paste’s unusual mix of ingredients is explained by the dish’s apparent roots in the spices brought to southern Thailand by Indian and Indonesian traders. (The traders would seem to have brought their religion as well, as southern Thailand has a large Muslim population.) Roasted peanuts were added before serving.

Served with rice and a deceptively simple but delicious cucumber, chilli, shallot and coconut salad, this was a truly astonishing plate of food, the flavours ricocheting from richness and sweetness to sourness and heat, and back again. Unlike a Western stew, it’s not something I could just throw together: the spice paste alone had 14 ingredients, requiring stops at a local Chinese supermarket and Indo-Caribbean shop, and the use of a pan, the mortar and pestle and the food processor. But even the resident dish washer agrees that a little extra work is worth it if the outcomes continue to be this good.

Thai mussaman beef curry
Adapted from Rick Stein’s Far Eastern Odyssey
Active time: 45 minutes-1 hour; Total time: 4 hours
Special equipment: mortar and pestle OR spice grinder and food processor

The curry paste recipe will make enough for a second, slightly smaller curry (using 600-650 grams of meat). The paste can be kept sealed in the refrigerator for several days or frozen.

Curry paste ingredients and method
10 dried kashmiri chillies (I used hotter dried Thai chillies and decreased the number used by at least 1/3)
20 cardamom pods
2 tbsp coriander seeds
2 tbsp cumin seeds
16 whole cloves
5 cm cinnamon stick (If you are using a mortar and pestle instead of a spice grinder, leave out and add extra to the curry instead.)
2 pieces mace blade
200g shallots or onion
3 tbsp vegetable oil
25g garlic (3-4 large cloves)
1 tsp shrimp paste
25g ginger (thumb-sized piece)
2 lemongrass stalks
8 tbsp coconut milk

Seed the chillies and remove the cardamom seeds from their pods. Heat a small, heavy frying pan over a moderate heat. Add the chillies and all the dried spices to the pan and turn until they begin to smell aromatic, 1-2 minutes. Pour into spice grinder or mortar and pestle and grind to a fine powder.

Coarsely chop the onion or shallot. Heat the oil over a gentle heat in the same frying pan, add the onions and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, until fully softened and turning a dark golden, about 20 minutes. Add the shrimp paste and ground spices and fry for a few more minutes.Peel and roughly chop ginger. Remove tough outside pieces of lemongrass and cut into small chunks. Add these, along with the fried mixture, to the food processor. Pour in the coconut milk and process to a smooth paste.

Curry ingredients and method
850 grams beef stewing meat
400 ml (1 can) coconut milk
3 -4 black cardamom pods (replace with green if not available)
5-7 cm cinnamon stick
200 grams waxy new potatoes (use a bit more to feed an extra person)
2/3 quantity curry paste
1-1/2 tbsp fish sauce
2-3 tbsp tamarind concentrate
Scant 1 tbsp palm sugar
Handful roasted peanuts

Put the beef and just over half of the coconut milk in a heavy, lidded pan. Add the same amount of water, the cardamom, cinnamon and 1 tsp salt and bring to a simmer. Mostly cover and cook on a gentle heat for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally, by which point the sauce will be thick and well-reduced and the meat almost tender.

Cut the potatoes into chunks. Add those, along with the remaining coconut milk, curry paste, fish sauce, tamarind and sugar, to the pot. Taste for sweet-sour balance, adjusting the last three ingredients as necessary.

Simmer uncovered on a gentle heat for another 30-45 minutes, or until the beef can be broken apart with a fork, the sauce is integrated and the potatoes tender. Check seasoning, add peanuts and serve, ideally with a clean, tangy relish on the side.

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