Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Chunky Massaman Cottage Pie

I travel a lot for work, usually on my own, to countries where I barely know anyone. Often, along the way someone will invite me over for a home-cooked meal. After weeks of dining solo on restaurant food, to sit at a table and share a meal feels like food for the soul. I have long promised myself that I will pass on the hospitality karma and open up my home to people whom I meet travelling.

I was recently on holiday in Railay in southern Thailand where I made friends with some lovely Americans. When I learned that they’d be passing through Bangkok on their way back home I was only too happy to keep my promise to myself and I invited them over for dinner. But what to cook? I couldn’t decide between traditional Thai or English, so I fused the two and cooked them a quintessentially Tinglish dish, combining two classic food heroes from both countries – Massaman Curry and Cottage Pie. It doesn’t get more fusion than this!

Massaman is itself fusion food. It is a Southern Thai curry which is full of Indian influence in the dry spices, which were introduced to Thailand by early Muslim spice traders (Massaman translates as Muslim). Cumin, nutmeg and cardamom are fused with Thai flavours of coconut milk, lemongrass and fish sauce. It usually has potatoes in the curry, which is why cottage pie isn’t such a big culinary jump after all. Here's what it looks like served up in Railay:

I’ll be honest; this dish requires a fair bit of effort, mostly in making the curry paste, which is the backbone of the pie. You could always buy this ready-made but Massaman isn’t one of the more common Thai curries and not all supermarkets stock it. But trust me, the effort is totally worth it. Of all the things you can cook, I really believe that it’s hard to beat the satisfaction of making your own curry paste.  

This meal is fragrant, rich and comforting and I guarantee the smell will utterly seduce your guests – it screams, “Welcome, come in and make yourself at home”’. What did my American guests say? “Can I have some more please”.

Time: 1hr 40 mins (20 mins prep, 30 mins to make your paste, 30 mins to make the curry, 20 mins cooking time)
Rating: A fair bit of effort: Making the paste takes time and energy. But it’s worth it.
Serves: 5-6

    1. Pre-heat your oven to 180°C and put a large pan of salted water on to boil for the potatoes.
    2. Peel and chop the potatoes into equal chunks and set aside.
    3. Cut the beef into chunks about 2cm in size, discarding any fat. Chop the onion into medium-sized chunks. Set aside.
    4. Then make your curry paste. Dry roast the dry spices (the first 7 ingredients) in a pan on medium heat until fragrant, about 2-4 minutes, stirring frequently. You won’t see much change in colour but you’ll smell the spices warming. You want to smell them roasting, but not burning.
    5. Pound the dry spices in a mortar & pestle until powdered, or grind in a food processor or coffee grinder, then set aside. Separately pound/grind the rest of the paste ingredients with the salt, starting from the toughest, working up to the softest (i.e. lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and finally shallots). This is the most time-consuming part of the process but it’s worth putting the effort in so you get a nice smooth paste. Then add the dried spice powder back in. Mix well. It should be a rich rusty colour and smell amazing.
    6. Next, put the potatoes in the boiling water and cook them until tender.
    7. While the potatoes are boiling, heat the oil in a large pan or wok over a medium heat. Add the curry paste and fry this until fragrant, about 3-4 minutes. Keep stirring so it doesn’t burn.
    8. Add the beef chunks and onion. Fry until the meat is browned, about 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly.
    9. Add half the coconut milk. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 2-3 minutes. Don’t stir very much, just enough to combine.
    10. Meanwhile coarsely chop or crush the peanuts, either on a chopping board with a good knife, with a mortar and pestle or in a food processor. Add the peanuts, the rest of the coconut milk and the cinnamon stick to the curry and stir.
    11. Let the mixture simmer on a low heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently. The sauce should thicken and darken.
    12. Your potatoes should have boiled by now. While the curry is simmering, make your mash. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pan off the heat – make sure they are dry and well-drained. Mash vigorously to get rid of any lumps. Then using a wooden spoon beat in the milk, butter, egg yolks and seasoning. (I’ve never used egg yolk in mash before but I saw this on Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie recipe and thought I’d try it. It makes the mash creamy and gives it a nice colour). Set the mash aside and return to the curry.
    13. Stir in the fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice. Taste – you may wish to adjust the flavour by adding more of any of these ingredients. Cook for another 5 mins and take off the heat. Finely chop the fresh coriander and stir in.
    14. Remove the cinnamon stick and pour the beef curry into your baking dish. It may look a bit runny but it’ll all come good in the baking, don’t worry. Spoon the mash on top and smooth over. Using a fork, score lines into the top layer of the mash – this helps it brown in the oven.
    15. Bake for 18-20 minutes until warmed through and slightly browned on top.
    16. While the pie is baking, steam or stir-fry some green veg to serve on the side.
    Cooking ahead? Get your paste made in advance, and the rest will be as easy as pie! The paste will keep for a few days in a sealed container in the fridge or you can freeze it.


For the Curry Paste:
4 tsp dried chillies
1.5 teaspoon black peppercorns,
3 teaspoon coriander (preferably seeds, if not powder)
3 teaspoon cumin (preferably seeds, if not powder)
6 cloves
12 cardamom pods, roasted
1.5 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
2 inch knob ginger
3 lemongrass stalks (only white part)
2 shallots (or ¼ onion)
5 cloves garlic

For the pie filling:
5 tbsp massaman curry paste (made fresh as above, or shop bought)
1.2kg beef (rump or sirloin)
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tin/400ml coconut milk coconut milk
1 large onion,
100g  roasted peanuts
3 tbsp brown sugar
3 inch piece of cinnamon stick
3 tbsp fish sauce (or to taste)
Juice 1 lime
Small bunch fresh coriander

For the mash:
1.6kg potatoes
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp milk
½ tsp nutmeg
Knob butter
Salt & freshly ground black pepper to season

Green veg to serve (I used broccoli, but spinach or greens would be nice too). The curry is packed with flavour so you don’t’ need much on the side.

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