the power of curry
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on December 5, 2008
Last night I had dinner with my friend R. It was one of those cold, wet nights that I think of as an early winter specialty in New York – and we had decided to combat the chill with Thai. We went to Lemongrass Grill, a local chain, and happily began poring over a long menu of flavor-filled items, each more tempting than the next.
But one in particular stood out: the massaman curry dish, which Lemongrass’ menu described as “Muslim influence curry”:
Hmm, I said. I think it means “influenced”, as in “a curry influenced by Muslims”, not as in “this curry will influence you in Muslim ways”.
I’m ordering it, said R, who has an adventurous spirit.
Both of our dishes were delicious, and neither of us seemed particularly altered by them – happily for me, as mine featured both peanuts and spinach, neither of which I particularly wish to resemble.
But I am curious about the name. I have seen this dish in other Thai restaurants, spelled mussaman and massalman. This latter to me looks a lot like the French term for Muslim: musulman/e, so perhaps many people over the centuries have misheard “Muslim” or “Muslimeen” (the plural) as “Musalm” or “Musalmin”.
I looked online and found that while most food writers agree that this is “Muslim curry”, there seems to be no definitive view on how it received its name.
Here is the general consensus, from the foodies’ view:
Food blog Taste Buddies states that the dish is from southern Thailand and “was born from the Arab spice merchants who settled in the region a thousand years ago.”
The Curry Focus Blog agrees, noting that 60% of the population in southern Thailand is Muslim. It describes the curry as more sweet than spicy, and notes that that: “Spices were introduced to southern Thailand by early Portuguese traders who brought spices (such as turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, cloves and nutmeg) from the Middle East and India.” It suggests that the curry does well with pork, which to me seems to take away from the “Muslim” influence, but perhaps its a sign of how popular the curry is beyond its original makers.
A few sites suggest that the dish was traditionally made with beef. EnjoyThaiFood and others who suggest using chicken note that this is a departure from the traditional dish, since “Thai Muslims of course usually eat this dish with beef.” Does this sound familiar to anyone? I don’t think of Muslims as avoiding chicken (or poultry generally) – is this more of a Thai Muslim culinary tradition, or is it something I simply do not know?
In any case, what I do know is that we were both delighted to find ourselves warm and cozy on a chilly night, catching up and filling up on sweetly spicy food.