Food Stories: The royal Korma

Updated 27 May 2014

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There is no better curry in the world than a Korma cooked right.

'Korma probably derived from the Persian Koresh, a ghee-based mild stew the Moghuls indianised using cream, yogurt, ground almonds, saffron and aromatic spices.

It is said that if the Indian cook could cook a Korma he could cook for the Moghul court. If he could cook a dozen variations he would be the king of the kitchen and cook for the emperor’s table,’ writes Pat Chapman the English food writer, in his book India Food and Cooking.

But some believe that the Korma has central Asian roots and is referred to askhorma, qorma, kurma and kavurma and its mughlai version was created in the 16th century through the experimentation of Rajput cooks in the royal kitchens of Akbar the Great, under the supervision of Mir Bakawal, the master of kitchens and one of the court navratans (Akbar’s nine gems).

The Rajput cooks on creating the dish, named it Korma, in honour of the warrior Rajput 'Kurma' tribe.

Korma literally means braising the meat, and the method for cooking Korma was initial braising of meat in ghee (clarified butter), yogurt and spices and then simmering it in water until completion; blanched and finely ground nuts were also used as thickening agents.

It is said that the cooks in the royal kitchens marinated the meat in yogurt, fried onions and spices before cooking it for the emperor’s dinner table, and after the initial braising of the meat, the dum-pukth method was initiated until completion, or open lid simmering, but the temperature was always controlled hence the yogurt was never allowed to curd.

The Kashmiri Rogan Josh is a variation of the Korma as is the Do Piaza.

In contemporary Korma recipes, veg or non-veg, cream and coconut milk are used in the making of the curry, but the best tasting Korma is the one with the yogurt based curry infused with taste of caramelised onions, whole garam masalas, green cardamom, bay leaves and kewra water. There are as many Korma recipes in the subcontinent as there are regions in south Asia, every region has a different base, garnish or spice combination, but the eventual onion curry outcome is referred to as the Korma.

Turnip, carrot, potato, beets, onions, and mustard greens are a few of the ingredients in the Navratan Korma, a true vegetarian delight. History tells us that the British had not yet introduced the cauliflower to the subcontinent therefore it was a later addition to the vegetarian Navratan Korma.

The Ain-e-Akbari (life chronicles of the emperor Akbar penned by Abul Fazl) as mentioned earlier, suggests that the Korma was created in the royal kitchens of Akbar the great, and though Korma is not one of the 30 recipes mentioned in the Ain-e-Akbari (Akbarnama), it is safe to assume that it’s cooking method and ingredients have remained the same for over 500 hundred years.

My research has also led me to believe that haldi (turmeric), was not a very popular spice in the royal kitchens, thus its optional addition to the Korma may depends of one’s personal choice and taste.

The four most popular Korma curries in the subcontinent are Mughlai, Shahi, Kashmiri and south Indian. The Shahi and Mughlai are similar to the conventional Korma recipe, yogurt is blended with almonds and the meat is braised in yogurt, onions and spices and is later simmered.

Once the Korma is cooked, the Shahi Korma is laced with malai (heavy cream), a Punjabi favourite, and the Mughlai Korma is cooked with khoya (unsweetened condensed milk) right before being taken off the fire.

The base for the south Indian Korma is coconut milk and grated fresh coconut; this changes the taste of the Korma entirely and gives it a uniquely delicious flavour, different from the Korma enjoyed in Pakistan and north India.

Needless to say, the caramelised onion Korma, whichever region it hails from, vegetarian or meat based, Mughlai or Shahi, is an all time subcontinental favourite.

Today, I share my own recipe with you. No extra garnishes, achar or chutney required; with hot naan or shermaal here is the royal Korma from my kitchen to yours.


Ingredients (serves 6 to 8)


6 to 8 oz. oil
3 lbs. mutton or chicken
1tsp. heaped finely chopped fresh ginger
1 tsp. heaped finely chopped fresh garlic
3 medium sized onions (finely sliced)
2 or 3 cinnamon sticks
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp black peppercorns
2 or 3 black cardamoms
14 to 16 green cardamoms, split
4 bay leaves
2 tbsp kewra water (pandanus water)
2 to 3 tbsp almonds (optional)
Salt to taste
2 tsp red chillie powder
1 ½ tsp coriander powder
½ tsp garam masala powder
1 ½ tsp cumin powder
12 oz. yogurt
56 to 64 oz. water if cooking mutton; 40 to 48 oz. water if cooking chicken


Method


Heat oil, fry onions until golden brown, drain onions and set aside.

In the same oil, fry whole garam masala, green cardamom for a couple of minutes, adding meat.

Maintaining a high heat, fry meat, adding ginger garlic, yogurt, powdered masalas, salt and fried onions.

Braise meat for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring constantly. Bring water to boil and add to meat, letting the Korma boil for a few minutes, lower the heat to medium.

Let cook, adding bay leaves and kewra water. Once the curry thickens, the meat will become tender and the oil will separate. Your Korma is ready to be served.

Optional: Garnish with fried almonds once Korma is cooked or add blanched almonds to Korma 15 minutes before taking off the fire.


-Photos by Fawad Ahmed