From the North of India: Korma

One of my chiefest joys in teaching cookery is that I can help foster cultural awareness and understanding for people from different lands in my students. In the process of opening their palates to new flavors, one has a chance to open the eager taster’s minds as well, to new and different ideals and philosophies.

I take this chance whenever it is presented to me.

Morganna has been following in my footsteps; this semester in school, she took a class called “World Foods,” which is a clever way to get kids to take Home Economics and learn to cook by presenting basic culinary skills in the context of learning a variety of international foods. Each semester, the students pick the ten countries they most want to learn about, and then ten different menus are presented in the course of the class, with each menu presented within the cultural context of the country. Students learn about the geography, dominant religions, holidays, agriculture, economic system and some of the history of each nation they study, and then they split up into teams and cook dishes representative of that country.

In addition, each student chose a country to do an in depth project on that included a research paper, oral presentation with visual aids, and a dish typical of the country to share.

Morganna chose to do India, and the dish she decided to prepare and present was Chicken Biryani.

However, in order to cook a biryani, which is a dish which consists of meat and rice cooked together, one must first make a korma, which is a rich dish of meat, fowl or vegetables braised in a creamy sauce based on ground nuts or dairy products such as yogurt or cream, or a combination of any of the three. Once the korma is made, the traditional and proper means of making a biryani is to partially cook basmati rice in boiling water, drain it, and then layer it in a casserole with the korma and sprinklings of saffron-tinted and flavored milk. Then the casserole is tightly covered and cooked in a very slow oven until it is done.

Biryani, and for that matter, kormas, are dishes based on the very fancy and rich cookery of the Mogul courts. The Mogul Empire was established in northern India during the sixteenth century by Babur, a descendant of the fourteenth century Mongolian leader, Tamerlane. This empire flourished until the British overthrew them in 1857, though in truth, the power of the emperors had been in decline for a period of over one hundred years prior.

Under Mogul rule, art, architecture, literature, music, and all manner of cultural pursuits, including cookery advanced and flourished. This is the time period when Persian influences were brought into the Indian cookery tradition of the north, influences which can often be traced linguistically. For example, the word, “pillau,” which is used to denote a flavored rice dish, comes directly from Farsi, the language of Persia.

Persian influences on Indian cuisine include the use of fresh and dried fruits, nuts, ground spices and extensive use of dairy products in non-sweet dishes, particularly those including meat. (This does not meant that these ingredients are not used in sweet dishes at all–it is merely that I am pointing out that a hallmark of Persian influence is the use of these ingredients in savory meat-based dishes.)

I learned to make korma from cookbooks and from eating the excellent versions of korma to be had at Akbar in Columbia Maryland. I used my developing ability to unravel the flavors of various Indian spices to good effect every time we ate at Akbar, and I found that my korma improved every time I adjusted it to more closely resemble that which I had eaten at that restaurant.

I further refined it upon the instruction of my Pakistani personal chef client’s mother, and it was under her influence that my ability to make korma imroved by leaps and bounds. She was a very generous lady and was very happy to tell me how she cooked the dishes I ate at her home and her daughter’s home. When she tasted my efforts, she never stinted on praise and criticism, and itis through these discussions that I found myself growing more facile in Indian cooking techniques.

The one thing she praised effusively was my willingness and ability to deeply brown onions; she said that the one flavor that many Americans trying to learn Indian cooking tend to lose is the essential quality that is imparted to various dishes by perfectly browned, deep reddish-colored onions. She said that without these onions as a flavor base, many Americans make Indian food that turns out insipid and pale, lacking in character and strength.

So, every time I cook Indian food with Morganna, I am emphasize the importance of the completely browned onions, and she is learning to be tireless in standing over a pot of thinly sliced onions, stirring ceaselessly until they reduce down to a double handful of meltingly soft russet striings. For the korma, these are scraped from the pan, and added to the spices, garlic and ginger, to be ground into a paste. It is important to allow the cooking oil and ghee to drain from the onions before you grind them, because I use the highly flavored oil to cook the slivers of chicken. Doing this maximizes the browned onion flavor of the dish.

As we were cooking last night, Heather (who, with Dan, has just returned from the UK where they ate a lot of very good curries!) asked how I manage to cook the yogurt in the korma such that the yogurt does not separate and curdle into a mess.

There are several important points to consider in adding the yogurt to the dish. The first is to use only full-fat yogurt. If you use low fat, or even worse, nonfat yogurt, you run much more of a risk of the yogurt breaking down and curdling. The second is to mix the cream layer that is at the top of the full fat yogurt thoroughly into the the container, and then, gradually adding the yogurt to the dish, allowing it to cook down until it clings to the meat before adding a little more of the yogurt.

I add it in two tablespoon increments, until eight tablespoons total are used. Then, I add the heavy cream and allow it to simmer briefly to reduce the sauce to the clinging thickness that I find most appetizing.

Many korma include ground nuts as an enrichment to the sauce; cashews or almonds are most popular. Some restaurants use the nuts strictly as a garnish, sprinkling them over the finished dish. Sliced almonds scattered with fresh or dried rose petals or fresh pomegranate seeds are particularly pretty. Minced mint or cilantro leaves are also attractive. I know that my clients liked it when I presented korma with a sprinkling of freshly browned onions, cooked until barely crisp, along with roasted cashew halves.

However, since we were making this dish for a group of people whose food allergies we did not know, we left the nuts out of the recipe.

Chicken Korma

2 tablespoons ghee or butter
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1” cube fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly
1 tablespoon cumin seed
2 tablespoons coriander
3 whole cloves
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
½ small dried pakistani chile pepper (or to taste)
¼ teaspoon cardamom seeds
¼ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon paprika
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breast, cut into thin slices 1”X2”x1/4”
8 tablespoons full fat yogurt
1/3 cup heavy cream
salt to taste
toasted sliced almonds for garnish if desired


Heat oil and ghee in low, wide, heavy bottomed pan. Add onion, and salt, and cook, stirring constantly on medium heat until onions are dark reddish brown. Remove from heat and drain onions, leaving cooking fat in pan. Put onions into spice grinder, blender or food processor with spices, garlic and ginger and process into a smooth, dark brown paste.

Heat oil and ghee in pan again, and when it is nearly smoking add chicken slices and spice paste, and cook, stirring, until most of the pink is gone from the chicken.

Add the yogurt, two tablespoons at a time, allowing it to cook down until it thickly coats the chicken, then add the next two tablespoons, and continue this process until it is all used up. Add the cream, and cook until the chicken is just done.

Add salt to taste.

Now on to the secret of a fast and easy biryani that is not in the least bit authentic, but it is the way my client’s mother and aunt told me. Instead of taking the half cooked chicken korma, and half cooked rice and putting them together with saffron milk and extra water into a casserole and baking it in a slow oven while, “Praying that everything gets done at the same time” as they said, one could simply cook the rice seperately with saffron, in a rice cooker, and then blend it with the korma after both are cooked, then garnish the dish lavishly as one would do for a real biryani. They said that when they wanted the taste of a biryani, but lacked the time and energy to cook it by the proper method, they would take this shortcut and that most people in their family could not tell the difference.

Whether you take this shortcut or not is up to you, however, I have to admit to using it last night when we made “biryani” for Morganna’s classmates. I might have insisted on the traditional method if I had not just cooked dinner, but as I was already tired, I cheated and used the easy method taught by my Pakistani friends.


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  1. great article barbara.
    I use 0% greek fat yoghurt as a healthier alternative sometimes for indian cooking. i know it is not authentic, but it does keep the calories down a little and one of the best attributes of greek yoghurt is that it does not curdle when cooked.

    Comment by sam — December 16, 2005 #

  2. You know, I’ve never made indian food because I’ve always shied away from recipes that have more complex spice ingredients. My mom has attempted a couple of times and while its always pretty good, it still doesn’t come to the dishes we have tasted in our fav local indian restaurants.

    Being a student of history, I really appreciate the way you weave the history of the regional cuisine into your essay. It actually helps me understand the recipe because I have a better sense of the origins of the dish.

    I’m definitely going to attempt making this dish during the coming school break.

    Comment by Rose — December 16, 2005 #

  3. Sam–I keep hearing of how wonderful the Greek yogurt is, but every time I have meant to pick some up when we are in Columbus, the Trader Joe’s or Wild Oats is out of it. Which, now that I think on it, is probably a testament to its wonderfulness….

    I will have to try it. Because the way I deal with the caloric excess of korma is to try and only make it one or twice a year or so! Or, if I make it more often, to only eat a tiny amount of it. I shall have to try and find that Greek yogurt somehow so I can give it a whirl in Indian cookery.

    Rose–I am glad you enjoyed the essay–the history of various dishes and foods is of great interest to me. I like to see how various cuisines develop along with a society. I think it adds greatly to one’s understanding of a people if we can eat their foods and understand the history of it, and so our lives are enriched by the diversity of not only the table, but of the mind as well.

    Indian food used to frighten me terribly, too–it intimidated me horrendously. That is, until my first personal chef client asked me if I could cook Indian food…and I said without fail, “yes,” though the truth was I knew only six dishes. Since I was still waiting for my business liscense and tax ID number, I had a month between when she signed the contract and when I could start working for her, so in that time, I resolved to learn to cook Indian food.

    I bought twelve new cookbooks, and for a solid month, morning, noon and night, all we ate was Indian food until I was no longer fearful of the spice mixtures and the techniques used in cooking it.

    Then, once I started working for her, I learned still more from her friends and family–to the point that I had become a bit of a pet of the women of her mosque, and we would get together for tea, snacks and talk of cooking and children.

    It was great fun, and I learned a great deal, and got the joy of teaching them about American and European cookery while I was at it. I do very much miss those ladies….

    Comment by Barbara — December 16, 2005 #

  4. i did not know korma was the main ingredient of nasi biryani. what we have here is basically basmati rice cook with spices. i will try your “cheat” version next time for a fast homecook biryani!

    Comment by rokh — December 17, 2005 #

  5. Rokh–there is also a way to use up curries and already cooked rice pillau that my clients taught me. I used to go to the gyme with the wife, and I dropped her off one night at home, and she had me in, and her husband was cooking supper, and they bade me sit and eat.

    What he was doing was a clever way to use leftovers, but when I asked him what he called it, he shrugged and said, “Leftovers, I guess.”

    Well, it is kind of like fried rice, sort of, and sort of like a biryani.

    He would fry a thinly sliced onion until it was brown, and then would add cold rice pillau, broken up to separate the rice grains again. He would fry the rice with the onions, tossing them to coat them with the flavored oil, and then, he would take the saucy curry and pour it into the wok–he always used a wok or a karahi for this dish, he said–and would stir it around and let it all heat up together. The sauce would reduce down and soak into the rice a bit, and then he would add a bit of minced cilantro or mint or some fruit, like fresh pomegranate seeds, and maybe some sliced almonds, and there it was–hot, fragrant dinner–that wasn’t just reheated curry on reheated rice.

    I really think that it is an ingenious use of leftovers and deserves a name….

    Comment by Barbara — December 17, 2005 #

  6. that was what i did with my thai green curry chicken, the leftover is refried and then add with refrigerated cooked rice to toss until well coated and cooked till gravy dries up, what i had left was a really lovely biryani/green fried rice. really yummy too!

    Comment by rokh — December 19, 2005 #

  7. I make fried rice with my Thai/Chinese leftovers all the time. And nearly every fried rice is different, of course, because they are made of different leftovers!

    Comment by Barbara — December 19, 2005 #

  8. […] Marinade 1 – 1 1/2 c. plain whole milk yogurt (here’s why) 1 tsp. MDH* Chicken Curry Masala 1/2 tsp. MDH* Garam Masala 1/2 tsp. cardamom 1/4 tsp. coriander sprinkle of paprika salt and black pepper to taste 1 tbl. tamarind paste (optional; could substitute more lemon juice or some amchur powder) juice of 1/2 lemon […]

    Pingback by The Love of Spice » Quick and Easy Chicken Curry — May 23, 2006 #

  9. I attempted this recipe last night intending to eat it tonight. I understand that the flavors need to mingle overnight for the best flavor, so this was intentional.

    Since I had a butterflied leg of lamb I decided to make lamb korma instead of chicken korma, especially since the only korma I ever ate was a lamb korma. I am beginning to think that lamb is not worth the effort since I think lamb fat is disgusting and I burned the onions while I was going through the very, very tedious process of cubing the lamb and extracting every nasty bit of icky lamb fat. Next time, it will be chicken thighs for sure. I doubled the recipe since I had two pounds of lamb.

    The second time around with the onions, I chose to caramelize them in the non-stick skillet instead of in the enameled cast-iron pot, since it was a royal pain to clean the burned sugars (from Vidalia onions) out of le creuset. Lessons learned! The onions caramelized beautifully and filled the kitchen with a tantalizing, mouth-watering aroma.

    I ground all of the spices (I keep cumin, coriander, and pepper in seed form) in a spice mill, but I am wondering if I didn’t grind them sufficiently. Tonight will tell, but I’m not sure if I’ll like any gritty texture. I didn’t trust that my wimpy food processor would handle the spices well enough which is why I opted for the spice mill before hand.

    After making the recipe, I can’t help but wonder if there are some time-saving techniques that can be used.

    First: most of the time in caramelizing the onions is spent waiting for the water to cook out of the onions. Since the onions get pureed in the end, why not first grate the raw onion (which releases boatloads of water) and then caramelize the grated onion?

    Second: most of the cooking time is spent in adding the yogurt 2T at a time and waiting for the water to evaporate. Can this time be cut by draining the yogurt overnight in cheesecloth?

    Tonight I will write back with how it tastes.

    Comment by Jim — June 11, 2007 #

  10. Wow, it was delicious! I love how all of the flavors blended in with each other so that they were hard to distinguish. The pepper was very apparent, as I had left out the dried chile and the sauce was quite picante. My partner liked it very well also (“It’s a solid A”), and afterward we talked about how to improve it. We both though there should be less pepper and more capsaisin of some kind. My immediate desire is to add some of my Chinese red chili oil. Not authentic … is there a comparable Indian substitute?

    The lamb was “worth the effort” according to my partner. Easy for him to say … he didn’t have to cut it up! But I have to agree with him: the lamb was tender, savory, and rich-tasting.

    I have always been interested in Indian cooking and now I am ever more so. I think this is my next cooking challenge, and Barbara is just the type of trail-blazer I was looking for. I’m a lucky guy. Thank you, Barbara!

    Comment by Jim — June 11, 2007 #

  11. I should probably mention in an Indian food post that Vidalia onions are not really good for Indian food, because of the amount of water in them. Indian onions are dryer, in part, because of being grown in a more dry climate, and in part because they are a different variety. The closest we have here in the US are the fully cured yellow onions you get at the grocery store, but even those, according to my northern Indian friends, are still much juicier.

    So, no Vidalias–usually before they brown properly, they burn because of the extra sugars in it burning quickly once the excess water boils away.

    You could try grating the onion–not a bad idea, but in that case, I would suggest browning the onions not on medium heat, but low heat instead. When that much water is removed before cooking, I suspect that you would run the risk of burning them much more easily.

    That is partially why I always slice my onions paper thin–it thin enough to cut down on cooking time, but not so thin that the browning goes so quickly as to burn before browning.

    The idea of hanging the yogurt in cheesecloth is a good one. If you try it, let me know how it works.

    As for lamb–it depends on where you get it as to how fatty it is and what it tastes like. It is a pain to debone and defat it yourself, but the results are very worth it. At least I think so, but then I adore lamb.

    If you want more chile presence, there are two good, authentic choices. One, would be to use fresh chile ground with the spices into a paste. The other is to use powdered cayenne pepper to taste.

    I wouldn’t use Chinese chile oil–it would add a jarring note to the dish–especially if the chile oil was made with sesame seeds.

    The fresh chile peppers I use in Indian food are either cayenne, Thai bird chilies or serrano, depending on what I have in the fridge or freezer.

    I am very glad to hear that you liked the korma, and I look forward to hearing about how your other experiments in Indian food go!

    Comment by Barbara — June 12, 2007 #

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