This curry showcases sweet spices including cardamom, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and mace, and provides moderate heat along with depth of flavor. Asking around at the fresh market, you can find out who’s famous for her curry pastes, and buy a few baht‘s worth of krueng gaeng to take home and simmer up in your own kitchen. You can buy wonderful mussamun curry paste here in the west (not as wonderful as the market superstar, but very handy and very good), as well as make your own curry pastes. Mussamun comes from Southern Thailand, where direct cultural influences from South Asia are strongest. The name is thought to come from the English word ‘Muslim’, perhaps from the Muslim kitchens of Malaysia which borders Thailand to the South. Most Thai curries use small pieces of meat, but this curry is often made with big chunks of beef, boiled to tenderness in coconut milk before being cooking in the usual curry-paste infused way.
For this batch, I used mutton from my friend Craig Rogers, whose Border Springs Farm in central- southern Virginia provides excellent lamb and mutton to chefs and cooks around the country, along with the curry paste from Real Thai. I added sweet potatoes along with the potatoes which are always included in Mussamun, and peanuts, which sink to the bottom along with whole cardamom pods, all distinctive features of this curry which stands out among Thai curries. For some reason, mussamun was the curry of choice for the elaborate generous banquets with which my Thai friends celebrated weddings and ordinations during my time in Thailand. I often choose it for parties at our house, when I want a fantastically delicious, moderately hot curry as the centerpiece dish. Not everyone loves the fiery features of Thai food as much as I do, and this curry delivers Thailand’s incredible complex delicious curry magic minus some of the flames. Mussamun is also frequently made with chicken, and I remember a fantastically delicious version made with shrimp at a lovely luncheon hosted by the Thai ambassador to the United Nations in New York City, back in the 1990’s.
For a vegetarian version of this curry, I use white and sweet potatoes, chunks of firm tofu, and an array of fresh mushrooms such as shiitakes and oyster mushrooms and buttons sliced lengthwise into plump “t’s”, along with onions, peanuts and cardamom. Tamarind liquid goes into this curry, another unusual touch distinct from most curries in Thailand. I have made it without the tamarind, and even without that burst of flavor, it remains a marvelous dish, of the even-better-the-next-day type. If I’m making it ahead of time on purpose, I leave out the potatoes and add them in when I heat it back up before serving. They’re also fine when reheated — just writing about these variables reminds me how flexible, generous, easy-to-vary, accommodating Thai food is. More ways to get it right and good, few ways to make it bad and wrong, unless you burn it or drop it in the mud. And then my Thai friends would just laugh and say, “Mai pen rai!”, which is never mind, no worries, on we go.