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Gaeng Mussaman from The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Gaeng Mussaman from The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Food From Fiction, Recipes

“Tell me,” I demand.


“Everything.  I mean, do you understand why I don’t know you?  I’m terribly sorry about that – “

“Oh, no, you shouldn’t be.  I mean, I know….why that is.”  Clare lowers her voice.  “It’s because for you none of it has happened yet, but for me, well, I’ve known you for a long time.”

“How long?”

“About fourteen years.  I first saw you when I was six.”

“Jesus.  Have you seen me very often?  Or just a few times?”

“The last time I saw you, you told me to bring this to dinner when we met again,” Clare shows me a pale blue child’s diary, “so here,” – she hands it to me – “you can have this.”  I open it to the place marked with a piece of newspaper.  The page, which has two cocker spaniel puppies lurking in the upper right-hand corner, is a list of dates.  It begins with September 23, 1977, and ends sixteen small, blue, puppied pages later on May 24, 1989.  I count.  There are 152 dates, written with great care in the large open Palmer Method blue ball point pen of a six-year-old.

“You made the list?  These are all accurate?”

“Actually, you dictated this to me.  You told me a few years ago that you memorized the dates from this list.  So I don’t know how exactly this exists; I mean, it seems sort of like a Mobius strip.  But they are accurate.  I used them to know when to go down to the Meadow to meet you.”  The waitress reappears and we order:  Tom Kha Kai for me and Gang Mussaman for Clare.  A waiter brings tea and I pour us each a cup.

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife, (Vintage Canada, 2003)


Welcome to the 2nd edition of Food from Fiction!  You may notice a few similarities between this month’s book, The Time Traveler’s Wife, and my first selection, Voyager by Diana Gabaldon.  Both have a Clare/Claire, both involve time travel, and both are in my top 5 most enjoyable reads of all time.

But instead of 18th Century Scotland, Audrey Niffenegger takes us into the 20th & 21st Century world of Henry DeTamble — a tall, dark, handsome and chrono-displaced Chicagoan who unwillingly travels back and forth through time meeting himself, and those tied to him, over and over again.

The novel opens in the Special Collections at Chicago’s Newberry Library in 1991, when an over-the-moon 20-year old Clare Abshire comes face to face with 28-year old Henry for the first time in 2 years.  She has known him almost her whole life.  He has no idea who she is.  Stunned, he accepts Clare’s invitation to dinner, and this remarkable love story begins (again) at the Beau Thai, over bowls of spicy chicken soup for him and mild beef curry for her.

The Time Traveler`s Wife is a fantastical yet grippingly real tale of love between a woman who is forever waiting for a man who, given the choice, would never leave.  Even the purest, truest love is never easy, and Audrey Niffenegger’s story beautifully balances the joys of a lifelong love with the challenges of a lifetime together — a truism whether you fleet in and out of time, or you’re firmly stuck in the present.



Audrey Niffenegger was kind enough to answer a few  questions by email — they`re not questions you’ll see in typical author interviews, because I try to get a quick peek into the “food life” of the individual beyond the author.  As for the last question, the website is Island Vittles, after all!

1.  Clare and Henry eat a lot of ethnic, especially Thai and sushi.  Is that based on your own culinary preferences?  Where do you get ideas for the food in your fiction?

Clare and Henry eat at real Chicago restaurants. If you went to any of these places you could order the same food they order. These are all favorites places and dishes for me. I eat out a lot, I am not a devoted cook. Chicago has a huge variety of excellent, inexpensive ethnic restaurants; a friend and I once tried to count how many different cuisines are represented here and we gave up after counting fifty.

2.  What is your favourite dish/meal to cook for yourself?

I am good at soups and stews. If you can make it in a big pot and eat it all week, I’m there.

3.  What is your favourite dish/meal that someone else makes for you?

My mother makes terrific pie. Rhubarb is my favorite.

4.  The after-dinner dishes:  wash or dry?

I’d just as soon wash.

5.  What is your favourite island?

I would have to say the UK. They have great writers and artists and the food has improved quite a lot.

massaman-curry-paste mussaman-mortar-pestle

coconut-cream mussaman-spices-sugar

Gang Mussaman is a dish from southern Thailand, traditionally made with beef.  A sweeter and milder alternative to the popular red and green curries of Thai cuisine, Gaeng Massaman, as it is most commonly spelled on the internet, finds its origins with the Muslim traders that brought spices such as cardamom and cinnamon from afar.  The name Massaman is derived from Musulman, an archaic form of the word Muslim.

Massaman Curry Paste, nam phrik kaeng massaman, is available ready-made in stores, which is a great alternative if you’re in a bit of a hurry.  But if you have the time, try making the paste from scratch  — pounding seeds, spices and aromatics together in a mortar and pestle can take the edge off a rough day — and the scent of a freshly pounded paste will leave no appetite in the house untouched.

Although many recipes call for cubed stewing beef, I prefer to cut larger pieces from a bottom round roast.  Larger pieces can cook for longer without drying out, so the curry can simmer for a couple of hours to develop maximum flavour.  Cut or shred the cooked beef into smaller pieces when you`re ready to serve.


There are a few specialty items that you`ll need to go to an an south Asian grocery store:  lemongrass, galangal (check the frozen section — or substitute with ginger), fish sauce and tamarind paste.

Like most curries, this one improves with a day in the fridge.  I made it (and the accompanying pickles) the day before I served it for dinner.  When I pulled it out of the fridge, there was a pretty good layer of solid fat on the top of the pot, which gave me an opportunity to remove about half of it before heating — resulting in a lighter, less-greasy dish still packed with flavour.

Claire`s Gang Mussaman
Yield:  4 servings

Mussaman Curry Paste

Shallots, finely chopped 3 T 45 ml
Garlic, finely chopped 1 T 15 ml
Galangal, finely chopped 1 t 5 ml
Lemon Grass, finely chopped 4 t 20 ml
Coriander Seeds 1T
Cumin Seeds 1 t
Black Peppercorns 5
Cloves, whole 2
Dried Chilis, halved, deseeded and soaked in hot water 10 minutes 3
Salt 1 t 5 ml
Shrimp Paste 1t 5 ml

Heat a small, preferably cast iron, pan over low for 5 minutes.  Add the shallots, garlic, galangal, lemon grass, coriander, cumin, peppercorns and cloves and dry fry, stirring regularly, to cook out some of the moisture, about 8-10 minutes.  Remove from heat and cool 5 minutes.

Thinly slice the chilis, and add them, as well as the salt, to the mixture.  Blend in a small food processor or mortar and pestle until the mixture forms a fine-textured paste.  Stir in the shrimp paste and blend again.  Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

Gang Mussaman

Mussaman Curry Paste 3 T 45 ml
Coconut Cream ½ C 125 ml
Beef, Bottom or Outside Round, trimmed & cut into 4 pieces 1 lb 500 g
Coconut Milk (from the top of the can) 2 C 500 ml
Cardamom, whole 1 pod
Cinnamon Stick 1
Potatoes, peeled & quartered 3 small
Peanuts, unsalted, chopped 2 T 30 ml
Shallots, peeled 8
Bay Leaves 3
Palm Sugar, chopped (or brown sugar) 3 T 45 ml
Fish Sauce 3 T 45 ml
Tamarind Paste 3 T 45 ml

Cook the curry paste and coconut cream together in a large saucepan over medium heat for 5 minutes.  Add the beef pieces and fry for 10 minutes, turning occasionally.  Add the coconut milk, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer for 10 minutes.  Add the remaining ingredients and cook, partially covered and stirring occasionally, until the meat and potatoes are tender, about 1½-2 hours.  Remove the bay leaves and cinnamon stick.

Garnish with some extra peanuts and cilantro for colour, and serve with rice and pickled cucumber.


Although not specifically mentioned as a part of Claire and Henry’s first-date dinner, these cucumber pickles are quick to make, and are a wonderful cooling accompaniment to any curry.

Cucumber Pickles (Achat)
Yield:  4-6 servings

Water 1 C 250 ml
White Wine Vinegar 1 C 250 ml
Sugar ¼ C 60 ml
Kosher Salt 1 T 15 ml
Dried Chilis 4
Garlic, peeled 2 cloves
Ginger, peeled and minced 1 T 15 ml
Cucumber, cut into ½” slices ½ lb 250 g
Red Onion, thinly sliced ½ C 125 ml
Red Bell Pepper, diced 3 T 45 ml

Bring the water, vinegar, sugar, salt, chilis, garlic and ginger to a boil in a saucepan.  Reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Mix the remaining ingredients in a container with a tight fitting lid.  Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the vegetables.  When cool, cover and refrigerate for 1 day before eating.  Will keep up to 1 week.