What can you do when a freak rainstorm knocks durian fruits off the tree before they are ripe?
Or when unscrupulous Thai vendors sell you fruits that will never ripen properly, and remain as dense and white and appealing as a raw potato? Make Massaman Curry. Or go to a restaurant that makes Vegan Durian Massaman Curry, like some friends and I did recently in Chanthaburi, Thailand.
I’d never tasted Massaman Curry before, durian or otherwise. It’s not as common in Thailand as the ubiquitous red and green curries, because it’s different. It’s a Thai-Muslim dish, sweet and heavy and aromatically flavored with spices from Persia – Cardamom and Cumin and Cinnamon and Cloves and a touch of fennel blended with Thailand’s lemongrass and a hefty dose of birds-eye chilies.
The curry was first recorded during the reign of the Ayutthaya Empire in the 17th century, possibly through the influence of a Persian Courtier. Thailand was a diplomatic hub in those days, frequented by visitors from all over the world.
But Massaman Curry is fully Thai.
About Durian Massaman Curry
Toward the end of the 18th century, a lovesick Prince who would later become King Rama II wrote the following stanzas:
มัสมั่นแกงแก้วตา หอมยี่หร่ารสร้อนแรง –
ชายใดได้กลืนแกง แรงอยากให้ใฝ่ฝันหา –
Massaman, a curry made by my beloved, is fragrant of cumin and strong spices.
Any man who has swallowed the curry is bound to long for her.
I wish Rob felt that way about my cooking. Or more commonly, my durian opening.
A durian sliced and cracked by my beloved, is fragrant with chocolate promise and sweat of effort,
Any man who has swallowed these smooth pillows is bound to long for her.
But then, a lady who smells of durian is probably not delicate enough to be put on a poetic pedestal by romantic princes.
That doesn’t mean that a Durian Massaman curry isn’t poem worthy. This may be the richest food I have ever eaten in my days as a vegan.
Massaman curry isn’t normally vegan — it’s usually made with beef or chicken and big lumps of potato, drowned in a sweet, oily sauce made from coconut milk and crushed peanuts.
This version is made with hunks of under ripe durian, cooked until our forks melted into the flesh like butter. It looked like potato, but fluffier, denser, sweeter and just a hint of Monthong’s vanilla-durian essence. We looked at each other in amazement – could durian have a second secret life as a starchy vegetable?
Thai Durian Salad ( Durian Som Tom)
The Massaman Curry was so rich we were glad to have some spicy salad to lighten it up – salad made from durian. What else would it be made of?
Som tam is a traditional Thai salad made from underripe fruits – usually papaya – dressed in lime, tamarind, garlic and plenty of chilies and pounded together with a large wooden mortar and pestle to soften the fruit/vegetables and combine the flavors. In this version, the unripe fruit is raw durian.
Durian as a vegetable is surprisingly awesome. It’s both soft and firm, with a waxy texture not unlike slices of firm mozzarella cheese (or how I remember mozzarella cheese. It’s been 8 years, so true cheese lovers forgive me if I’m totally off-base on this).
The flavor of the unripe durians is mild and slightly sweet, and it really pairs well with the acidic bite of the som tam sauce. If only it were easier to find – but you can make it yourself with this recipe.
Where to eat Durian Curry
Or if you’re in Chanthaburi, Thailand in May or June, you can head to Chantorn Pochana Restaurant. It’s an upscale venue with gleaming white tables, chairs and floors. Our plates were the heavy kind that might break if you dropped them.
Naturally, the dishes were more expensive than you find at the little Thai wok on the street. The durian som tam cost 120 baht, while a normal papaya som tam might cost 30-40 baht. The Durian Massaman Curry cost 250 baht.
They durian dishes weren’t any more expensive than other, more normal Thai dishes on the menu, so I think for the experience of tasting durian cuisine it’s totally worth it. Durian tastes so different at various stages of ripening, it’s exciting to think how else it can be used in creative cooking — as a creamy natural dessert, or as a vegetable.
How To Get There
Chantorn Pochana Restaurant is located on the other side of the bridge from the Robinson Department Store.
Hours: 10 AM to 9 PM
Address: 102/5-8 Benjamarachutis Rd., Wat Mai, Chanthaburi 22000, Thailand