Tackling My (Absurd) Fear of Asian Cooking + Rock Sugar's Massaman Curry Recipe

I have a confession to make. I'm afraid of cooking Asian food. Woks, stir-fries, curries, you name it... I find them all strangely intimidating to master in my own kitchen. It's ironic, because the flavors inherent in Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and Indian cuisines are some of my hands-down favorites, but I've never gotten the courage myself to learning how to cook them. Don't get me wrong; I rip out seemingly delicious Asian recipes, have cookbooks filled with healthy stir-fry recipes and even tweet the hell out of other people's Asian creations. But the closest I ever got to making something myself was a few months ago when I ordered a 12" wok pan from Amazon.com, but the thought of setting off the fire alarm in my tiny kitchen from the simple "seasoning" process alone deterred me. Sadly, the wok pan occupies its time inside my oven (when not fired up, of course) and my Talesai menu gets all the action.

Last month I was determined to change that, but I knew I needed a tiny bit of guidance. When I heard that Century City's Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen (another great place for happy hour, by the way) was having a "Foods from Bangkok" cooking class, I was on it like white on sticky rice. Singapore-born Executive Chef Ismail Mohan, who earned his stripes at Tabla, Spice Market and Blue Hill, would be instructing an intimate group through the basics of Thai specialties: chicken satay with homemade peanut sauce, Goong Sa-Lhong (beer-battered, rice noodle-crusted shrimp), Yam Som O (pomelo and crabmeat salad), and Gaeng Massaman, a southern Thai dish that would help me tackle my absurd fear of curry paste and tamarind head-on.

Goong Sa-Lhong (Beer-battered, rice noodle-crusted shrimp)

Yam Som O (Pomelo and Crabmeat Salad)

Chicken Satay with Spicy Peanut Dipping Sauce
When I got the class at 10:30 a.m., I joined eight other "students" on Rock Sugar's spacious back patio. Chef Mohan's team had set up five cocktail tables complete with individual place settings and leather-bound notebooks filled with the day's recipes. There was not a bad seat in the house to watch Chef Mohan as he prepared each dish; he made following along even easier by coming out and showing each table his preferred brand of curry paste, how to segment pomelos (Asian grapefruits), and sharing the details on where we could buy each of the specialty ingredients.

Chef Mohan Preparing Massaman Curry

Show-and-Tell Shrimp Dipping Sauce
It was easy to see Chef's passion for talking about Thai cuisine, especially when he regaled the group with stories about how he has a special basement stockpiled -- floor to ceiling, mind you -- with wholesale Thai coconut milk after a terrible disease wiped out many of the coconut trees in Thailand. Anticipating the price of authentic coconut milk to double (which it did), Chef Mohan was smart enough to order enough to last Rock Sugar for one year. Speaking of secret stashes, when Chef isn't feeding the hungry masses that hit Rock Sugar everyday, he's enjoying a Skippy peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white bread. He has his own secret stash in the manager's office that he "pairs" with a hot Milo (hot drink make from chocolate and malt powder). I can only imagine it would be better if he slathered on a layer of his homemade peanut sauce instead...

Chef Mohan's Secret Indulgence: PB&J!

At the end of the day, Rock Sugar's class demystified the basics of Thai cuisine. As is typically the case with my inane cooking phobias -- roasted beets were another silly example -- the ingredients are much easier to find and the dishes much easier to prepare than I thought. Take the Massaman curry, for example, the recipe for which I've included below. It's essentially a process of layering ingredients and letting them cook down into a steaming, simmering bath full of Thai flavors. And as it turns out, Chef Mohan's specific recipe couldn't be easier or more delicious. Try it for yourself, or better yet, sign up for one of Rock Sugar's cooking classes (rumor has it the next one will focus on "Rock Sugar" favorites). I'll see you there!

Thanks again to Sharon at Murphy O'Brien for the invitation!

Gaeng Massaman (Thai Curry w/ Chicken)
Recipe from: Chef Mohan Ismail, Executive Chef Rock Sugar Pan Asian Kitchen
Pre Time: 30 Minutes
Cooking Time: 1 1/2 hours
Serves: 4

  • 6 tablespoons Canola oil
  • 3 pounds chicken thighs
  • 8 oz. chopped onions
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 4 oz. Massaman curry paste (available in Asian markets)
  • 3 cups coconut milk
  • 2 cups chicken stock (canned)
  • 1 pound Yukon (or other low starch) potatoes
  • 2-4 tablespoons Tamarind paste (available in Asian markets)
  • 3 ounces brown sugar, to taste
  • Fish sauce, to taste
  • 4 tablespoons peanuts, toasted
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Heat oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Chop the chicken into 2-3" pieces, then season liberally with salt and freshly ground pepper. Sear the chicken pieces in the pan until they are slightly caramelized. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the onions to the pan and sweat until translucent. Add the ground cumin and stir quickly until it is incorporated with the onions. Add the Massaman curry paste and stir until fragrant.

Return the seared chicken pieces to the pot and stir until the pieces are coated with the paste. Add the coconut milk and chicken stock to the pot and summer until the chicken is almost cooked. If the mixture starts to reduce too much, add a small amount of water. Place the potatoes into the pan with the chicken and season with Tamarind, brown sugar and fish sauce. Simmer the mixture until the potatoes are tender. Once the potatoes are tender, the chicken should be cooked through. Serve with white rice and sprinkle with toasted peanuts, if desired.

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