A Clash of Flavors: Massaman Curry vs. Panang Curry

Massaman Curry vs. Panang Curry: Exploring the differences

Fans of Asian cuisine often rave about the exquisite flavors of Massaman and Panang curries. These two dishes have gained worldwide popularity for their complexity and unique flavor profiles. While both curries have Thai influences, Massaman curry incorporates warm spices of Persian origin, while Panang curry offers a spicy and nutty flavor. In this article, we will explore the characteristics and differences of Massaman curry and Panang curry to help you appreciate these flavorful dishes even more.

Massaman Curry: A Fusion of Flavors

Contrary to popular belief, Massaman curry is not just a Thai curry, but rather a fusion of flavors from across Asia. Its base combines ingredients from the Indian subcontinent with traditional Thai elements, resulting in a fragrant and flavorful paste. The name “Massaman” is derived from the Persian word “moselman,” meaning Muslim, suggesting a blend of Persian cuisine with Thai and Indian influences brought to Asia by Persian merchants.
The ingredients used in Massaman curry reflect its Muslim roots. While it can be made with various meats such as chicken, duck, beef, venison, goat, and mutton, pork is usually excluded due to its prohibition in Islam. Curry incorporates warm and fragrant spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin and nutmeg, which were introduced to Thailand by traders in the 17th century. Thai influences in the recipe include coriander seeds, lemongrass, shrimp paste, chili peppers and garlic.
To make Massaman curry, these ingredients are blended into a thick paste, which is then fried with coconut cream. The sauce is further enhanced by the addition of meat, potatoes, fish sauce, tamarind paste, coconut milk, sugar and peanuts. The result is a rich and aromatic curry with a slight heat from the tamarind, balanced by the sweetness of the coconut cream and milk. Massaman curry is usually served with steamed rice, such as jasmine or basmati, and can also be enjoyed as a soup if the sauce is thinned.

Panang Curry: A Distinctive Thai Delight

Panang curry is an authentic Thai curry known for its distinctive red sauce. Although it can be confused with Thai red curry, Panang curry has its own unique characteristics. With over a century of history in Asian cuisine, Panang curry remains true to its Thai origins and has an unmistakably Thai ingredient list.
The curry paste used in Panang Curry consists of coriander root, coriander seeds, cumin, dried chilies, galangal, lemongrass, makrut lime peel, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste, salt and peanuts. This paste is fried in coconut cream, resulting in a rich and flavorful sauce. Thin strips of meat, such as pork, poultry, or vegetables for a vegetarian option, are added to the sauce along with makrut lime leaves, coconut milk, palm sugar, and fish sauce.
Traditionally, Panang curry is served with jasmine or sticky rice and often includes a variety of vegetables and a protein source, usually chicken. Lime wedges and a dash of hot sauce are popular garnishes for those seeking an extra kick, or the curry can be topped with finely chopped fresh chili peppers and a splash of coconut milk.

Taste comparison: Massaman Curry vs. Panang Curry

When it comes to taste, Massaman curry and Panang curry offer distinct flavor profiles that set them apart from each other. Massaman curry, with its extensive list of ingredients, boasts a rich and intense flavor. The combination of tamarind, coconut cream, coconut milk and sugar gives it a subtle tang and sweetness. The warm spices of cumin, cinnamon and nutmeg add a unique layer of warmth to the flavor profile. Chicken and potatoes are considered traditional and ideal choices for Massaman curry because they complement the sauce remarkably well. While other meats such as duck, beef, or venison can be used, they may not showcase the flavors of the sauce as effectively.
Panang curry, on the other hand, is characterized by its spicy and nutty flavor. Makrut lime leaves and peanuts contribute to this distinctive flavor profile. The sauce is thick, with a sweet and salty flavor that sets it apart from other Thai curries. The coconut cream adds richness and sweetness, while the combination of Thai spices in the paste creates an aromatic experience. The inclusion of fish sauce and shrimp paste adds complexity, although these can be omitted for a vegan version of the dish. Thinly sliced pork is the most popular choice of meat for panang curry, but other meats or vegetables can also be used.

Heat Comparison: Mild vs. Moderately Hot

When it comes to heat, Massaman curry is generally milder than Panang curry. Massaman curry focuses more on the depth of flavor from the various spices and ingredients rather than heat. The use of warm spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves lends a gentle warmth to the dish without overwhelming the taste buds. The heat level can be adjusted to personal preference by adding more or less chilies.
Panang curry, on the other hand, tends to have a moderately hot kick. The dried chilies in the curry paste contribute to the heat, although the level can be adjusted by adding more or less chilies or using milder varieties. The heat of Panang curry is often balanced by the sweetness of coconut cream and palm sugar, creating a harmonious blend of flavors.


In conclusion, Massaman curry and Panang curry are both remarkable dishes in their own right, showcasing the diverse and vibrant flavors of Thai cuisine. Massaman curry is distinguished by its fusion of Persian and Thai influences, incorporating warm spices and fragrant ingredients. It offers a milder and richer flavor profile, with a spicy sweetness and a hint of warmth.
Panang Curry, on the other hand, is a distinctive Thai curry with a spicy and nutty flavor. Its red sauce, infused with Thai spices and coconut cream, provides a moderately spicy yet balanced flavor. The inclusion of peanuts and lime leaves adds an extra layer of complexity to the dish.
Whether you prefer the milder and more aromatic notes of Massaman curry or the moderately spicy and nutty flavors of Panang curry, both curries are sure to tantalize your taste buds and provide a delightful culinary experience. So explore these flavorful dishes, savor their unique characteristics, and enjoy the wonders of Thai cuisine.


What is the main difference between Massaman Curry and Panang Curry?

Massaman curry and Panang curry differ primarily in their flavor profiles. Massaman curry is milder and features warm spices of Persian origin, while Panang curry offers a spicy and nutty flavor.

Can I make Massaman or Panang curry vegetarian?

Yes, both Massaman Curry and Panang Curry can be made vegetarian. Simply replace the meat with tofu or a variety of vegetables to suit your dietary preferences.

What type of rice is traditionally served with Massaman Curry and Panang Curry?

Traditionally, Massaman curry and Panang curry are served with jasmine or basmati rice. The fragrant and fluffy texture of these rices complements the rich flavors of the curries.

Are Massaman and Panang curries hot?

Massaman curry is generally milder in spiciness than Panang curry. However, the level of heat can be adjusted to personal preference by adding more or less chilies.

Can I find Massaman curry and Panang curry outside of Thailand?

Yes, both Massaman curry and Panang curry have gained worldwide popularity and can be found in Thai restaurants in many countries. They have become popular dishes beyond the borders of Thailand.

Are there any common ingredients between Massaman curry and Panang curry?

While Massaman curry and Panang curry share some overlapping ingredients, such as coconut milk and Thai spices, they differ significantly in terms of flavor, heat, and the specific combination of ingredients used in their respective curry pastes.