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Massaman Curry vs Panang Curry: 5 Main Differences

Curry is a sauce comprised of various seasonings and spices which is usually served with things like meat, vegetables, and rice.

Out of all the curries that are enjoyed the world over, two of the most popular choices are the Massaman and Panang curries. And while they both originate from Thailand, they are quite different from each other.

The main difference between Massaman curry and Panang curry is in their flavor. Massaman curry has a distinct, mild flavor that is slightly sweet, including some less common ingredients such as whole spices and peanuts.

Panang curry is a little bit spicier, although not considered ‘that’ spicy when compared to other red curries.

Let’s cover these two curries in further detail to get a better idea of how they differ.

What is Massaman Curry?

Massaman Curry is what we would call a ‘fusion’ or ‘hybrid’ dish.

This is because, although it originated in Thailand, it takes a large influence in its ingredients from Persia, India, and Malaysia. They are then combined with the more tried and true Thai ingredients to create something truly unique and sweet.

Its degree of popularity cannot be overstated as in 2011 CNNGo readers voted it the single most delicious food in the world.

Nowadays, because of its extreme popularity, it’s broken free of its Thai origins and can now be purchased at most supermarkets as a red curry paste.

Like any other curry, it can be cooked with a huge range of ingredients but is traditionally served with rice and some kind of meat. Because of its origin as a Muslim-based dish, you would not traditionally see it served with pork, instead, it would be more commonly served with chicken.

But these days pretty much anything goes and you’ll often see it served with things like duck, beef, and venison.

When should you pick Massaman curry over Panang Curry?

Panang Curry, while not considered a spicy curry in and of itself, when compared to Massaman is a fair bit spicier thanks to the red chili.

It’s also thicker and creamier, which are qualities you can also use to describe Massaman, but this simply has ‘more’ of those qualities.

So while they are very similar, Massaman should be your choice if you’re looking for something a little more understated and toned down. We aren’t always in the mood for something too rich.

What is Panang Curry?

Panang, also called Phanaeng is a particular type of red curry that is usually made into a very thick and rich-tasting paste.

While not considered very spicy, it does have a rich and varied flavor palette and is both salty and sweet, and is often cooked with some zesty ingredients including makrut lime.

What adds too much of the thickness of the curry paste is the fact it’s often cooked with coconut cream which is really what bumps it up, turning it from a sauce to a paste.

While not done traditionally in Thailand, more recently and in particular due to its popularity in western countries, it’s become quite common to add in peanuts to further enhance the flavor.

But this is not considered a ‘traditional’ way to prepare it.

When should you pick Panang curry over Massaman curry?

Panang curry is quite a bit more intense than the milder massaman. This is something you should seek out if you want a little bit more heat and a little bit more of a full-on flavor in your curry.

What are the differences between Massaman curry and Panang Curry?

They do share a lot of similarities, with both being on the thicker and richer side, with a sweet and not too spicy edge.

The easiest way to think about the two is that Massaman is a milder version, containing less spice, it’s a little less overly thick and is generally more balanced.

Massaman curry uses ingredients sourced from multiple countries thanks to its diverse origin whereas Penang curry originated exclusively in Thailand.

1. Origin

While there is not a tremendous amount of detail about the curry origins, its first known documentation was back in 1980. And unlike the massaman curry, Panang is native to Thailand and (assuming you’re making it the ‘traditional’ way) only uses native ingredients.

As time went on and the popularity of curries grew so much in the west it’s become increasingly common to find this kind of curry overseas. Although oftentimes there are some liberties taken with the ingredients.

If you are interested in trying Panang curry we recommend sourcing the most authentic one you can.

Massaman has a diverse origin, and while it is said to have originated in Thailand, its heavy influence from the Indian subcontinent and association with Muslim food has led it to use many ingredients that are not commonly associated with curry.

This includes things such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, and bay leaves.

It has also been said that it was brought to Thailand via trade, which was then combined with the more traditional Thai food ingredients such as chili, lemongrass, and garlic to create this new style of curry.

In the modern day, we typically refer to this as a simple Thai curry variant.

2. Appearance

Panang curry is easily distinguished thanks to its deep red flavor which comes from the red chili.

It also has an unmistakable viscosity to it due to being fried with coconut cream/butter which gives it a very rich and thick texture to where it could easily be mistaken for a very soft solid.

Very few other liquids are added to this which is how such a rich texture is achieved. 

Unlike some other curry pastes, this is also not then further diluted, it’s just served as is.

While Massaman Thai curry paste is considered a red curry (named as such because it’s generally cooked with red chile instead of green), its color is not always red.

The color palette can range from light and red-brown to a deep yellow color, you’ll also often see some of the spices in the soup too as this kind of curry is often comprised of a range of ‘full’ spices.

This also gives it a nice bit of texture you wouldn’t normally get from a traditional curry cube.

3. Variations

For the most part, there is a set of ‘core’ ingredients needed to make a standard Panang curry, this includes dried red chili peppers, lemongrass, lime zest, coriander, cumin, and the all-important shrimp paste and coconut butter.

Of course, these are not all of the ingredients, but that is primarily what gives it that wonderful array of flavors from the creaminess of the coconut to the slightly tangy lemon flavor.

Massaman, instead, is technically already its own variation of curry. But because of how many ingredients it uses there is an almost insurmountable number of ways this dish will get customized from restaurant to restaurant.

The common factor between them all is that they tend to use ingredients that complement the sweeter and milder side of the spectrum. Certain ingredients such as garlic, red chile, cumin, and lemongrass are really what create the foundation of Massaman curry.

Once you have that mild, sweet, and thick sauce, people tend to get a bit more playful with it. It is possible to increase the heat level a bit by being more generous with the red chiles.

4. Preparation

Panang curry is perhaps a little harder to source from a regular grocery store than massaman curry and is generally a little more ‘niche’ of a meal.

You may have to prepare this at home, but don’t worry it’s pretty easy! You just need to rehydrate the chilis, toast all the ingredients, mash them in a mortar and pestle, and then heat them in a pan. Easy enough to do at home!

Unless you happen to have every single spice to hand, which for most of us home cooks is extremely unlikely, you’ll usually prepare Massaman curry using a store-bought paste.

It might not be available at every grocery store, but if you head to the Asian section or a dedicated Asian market you’ll no doubt find it there.

From there it will usually be cooked with some kind of meat. Chicken is one of the most popular choices. Plus vegetables such as carrots, red bell peppers, green beats, and bamboo shoots.

It’s also commonly cooked with coconut oil, or at a push, avocado oil can be used. This is not commonly cooked with our standard olive oils.

It’s usually served with some long-grain jasmine rice.

5. Taste

Panang curry has quite a complex flavor palette due to the myriad of ingredients used in the dish. 

But it’s generally described as being mildly spicy with a rich, creamy, and thick texture with notes of sweetness and a zesty edge thanks to that lime.

Massaman curry is often described as either not spicy or mildly spicy. Again there is a slight variation between brands, but you should never encounter a massaman curry that’s blazing hot.

Because of the plethora of ingredients from different origins that are used to make the curry, it has a very complex and delightful flavor palette than includes notes of tanginess, zest, and sweetness with just a little bit of spice.

The texture is usually rich and thick giving it a slightly decadent quality even though it’s usually served as a main meal.

Panang Curry vs Massaman Curry: are they the same?

They are definitely not the same thanks to the differences in their ingredients and origins.

But they will generally be used for the same kind of meals, using meat, vegetables, and rice with a delicious curry sauce.

Massaman is a little milder and understated. While Panang is a bit more full-on and has a deeper color and thickness thanks to its use of coconut cream.

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