what is korma?

Korma is the Urdu word for “braise”. It is a dish where meat or vegetables are braised in yogurt, cream, or coconut milk.

Korma was created in the royal kitchen of the Rajput king Akbar during the middle of the sixteenth century, CE. It is a characteristic Mughul dish, which can be traced to their incursions into present-day Northern India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Rajputs were the then feudal rulers of this part of India and incorporated this Persian-inspired dish into their cuisine.

Historically the ingredients were mutton or goat, yogurt, cardamom, black peppercorn, dried ginger, and a lot of saffron. Almonds or cashews were soaked in water overnight, peeled and ground, then added to make a thick creamy texture. There is no turmeric, as it was rarely used in the royal kitchens due to its humble associations.

Using chicken for this dish is a recent innovation from the nineteenth century, CE. When this recipe was created Indian chicken was tough, dry, and stringy, unlike the product we are used to today, and did not lend itself to this recipe. Vegetable versions were adopted much earlier, just after the original recipe. Navrattan korma is a spectacular example of a vegetable korma. It is not par-boiled vegetables in a korma sauce, but is a quite complex recipe. A true navrattan korma is a delight. Hard work, but a delight.

There are several different korma approaches.

In the modern north Indian korma, vegetables or meats are simmered in the sauce, which may be based on heavy whipping cream, condensed milk, or yoghurt. This produces a dish with a lot of rich sauce, quite the opposite of the more traditional braising approach described above. The term Malai korma refers to a cream-based preparation and Khoya korma refers to a condensed milk korma. In this north Indian style, the mild, creamy sauce has subtle aromatic spices such as cardamom cloves and cinnamon. Robust spices such as chillies and black pepper are avoided. This type of korma is common in the Punjab, Pakistan, and the northern states.

A south Indian korma is different. It is a much more spiced dish and is simpler in its preparation. Instead of dairy products, it uses coconut milk and includes chilli and black pepper. The common aromatic spices used are fennel seeds and sometimes fenugreek in seed form and in leaves. Tomatoes are often used. The simmering technique is commonly used for this recipe. With a north Indian korma you would expect a mild dish, whilst a South Indian korma can be quite hot.

A korma from the far north of India goes by several names, including Mughlai korma, Kashmiri korma, or Shahi korma (meaning royal korma). These are much more complex dishes and feature nuts and dried fruit. Often, they will use cream as the base for the sauce, or even sour cream.

You may find that crème fraiche is a better choice than sour cream. It has a less tart taste and has a different fat percentage than sour cream making it better for cooking. It more resembles the soured cream available in India.

The nuts are used whole and ground. The ground nuts are used to thicken the sauce and are usually almonds or cashews. The whole nuts are almonds, cashews, and pistachios. Aside from the spices mentioned above for the north Indian korma, mace, nutmeg and aniseed are often used to increase the aromatic nature of the dish.

I mentioned navrattan korma before. It is a vegetable dish and fits into the shahi, or royal category mentioned above. It dates to the Akbar period.

In Hindi, navrattan means “nine gems”, with several theories about which nine gems are being referred to. It may be the nine spices used, the nine fruits and nuts used, or the nine vegetables used. An interesting aside on the vegetables – it is worth remembering that chilli, potatoes, tomatoes, and cauliflower are not native to India. At the time of this recipe, they had just been introduced and were only available in the Portuguese settlements. The likely nine vegetables would have included beetroot, fennel, and several types of leafy green vegetables.

our favourite korma recipes

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