I love reading, watching and/or learning about how people ate in times before us and eat in places I’ve not had a chance to visit yet. While this may simply be idle food voyeurism on my part, the food rituals (in its broadest sense to include eating ballpark franks at a baseball game and microwave dinners in front of the TV) of people provide me with an insight (however, incomplete) into their lives. I think of it as snapping a photo of someone when they’re not quite yet ready for the shot. You catch them unawares, which is when, perhaps, they are most themselves. Of course, I’m not suggesting that people don’t construct and control their stories as active agents through an expression of their food rituals. Far from it! Just that while you may dress and primp for that photo shoot, there is still a moment, however fleeting, when the light cooperates with the photographer’s finger on the shutter button to steal a glimpse of you without your conscious awareness. My maternal grandmother who hated being photographed told me in her later years that the camera steals a part of your soul. She was on to something, I think.
What does all this have to do with a recipe for chicken korma? Well, like most people, I sometimes imagine what it would be like to eat a simple yet luxurious dish fit for a queen. Chicken korma, which is a Mughlai* dish from the northern part of the Indian subcontinent and is enjoyed in a variety of forms throughout Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, is exactly such a dish.
Originally, a slow-cooked braised meat dish — kavurma (“cooked meat” in Turkish) — the Mughlai version that inspires this recipe — korma (“braise” in Urdu) — is a sweet and sour, spiced, braised and wonderfully aromatic meat dish cooked in yogurt. Although this dish is usually prepared with chicken or lamb, a creative vegetarian version would be quite delightful I imagine.
This recipe is inspired by memories of my mother’s version (handed down by her own mother) of a chicken korma that comes out a shade of luminously creamy white and sparkles with bursts of taste. The delicacy of touch that my paternal grandmother’s version had – pared down to its essential ingredients – is also an inspiration for this recipe. Finally, for technical aspects of executing this recipe, I referred to one of my cooking “bibles” — the wonderfully comprehensive Ranna, Khaddo, Pushti (Cooking, Food, Nutrition) by the late great Bengali nutritionist, cookbook author and cooking show host – Ms. Siddika Kabir. I stand on the shoulders of great women, my friends.
My version is quite simple with the golden touch of Iranian saffron, but eating it makes me feel like the queen that I am not;-o)
Servings: ~4-6 people
Prep Time: ~20 minutes
Cooking Time: ~60-70 minutes
- Chicken – 12 pieces of bone-in thighs and legs (skinned and trimmed of any excess fat)
- Olive Oil – 1/2 cup
- Onions (Yellow) – 2 medium sized ones (finely chopped)
- Green Cardamom – 10 whole pods (gently pressed to open the pod)
- Canela (soft Mexican cinnamon) or Cinnamon – 1 large stick or 2 small ones (left in long pieces
- Garlic – 6 cloves (peeled and crushed)
- Ginger – 2/3rd inch piece (peeled and finely chopped)
- Coriander – 3 tablespoons (whole seeds crushed in a repurposed coffee grinder)
- Cayenne Pepper – 1 teaspoon
- Nutmeg – 1-1/2 teaspoons (ground)
- Mace – 1-1/2 teaspoons (ground)
- Saffron (Spanish is okay; Iranian is best) – 1/2 teaspoon
- Plain high-quality nonfat (unsweetened) yogurt – 1 cup (whisked or stirred with a fork to make it smooth and free of lumps)
- Kewra Water (Essence of Screwpine/Pandanus Flower) – 2 tablespoons (available at your local South Asian grocery store or online; this is not an optional ingredient)
- Fresh green chilies (of the Thai bird chili variety available at your local South Asian or Southeast Asian grocery store) – 15-20 (whole with only the stem removed to give the dish a distinctive aroma; it will not make the dish unbearably spicy as the seeds remain inside and one can easily avoid eating the whole peppers)
- Golden Raisins – 1/2 cup
- Fresh lemon – a squeeze or two (if needed)
- Hot water – 2 tablespoons (if needed)
- Salt – to taste
- Ghee or Clarified Butter (I’ll only swear by the Bengali kind available at your local Bengali or well-stocked South Asian grocery store) – 1 dollop (optional)
- Slivered almonds – 1/2 cup (optional)
- Whisk the yogurt and set aside so that it comes up to room temperature.
- Skin and trim the chicken pieces. Pat them dry and set aside.
- Heat oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven at medium heat.
- Add the cardamom, canela/cinnamon and onion to the heated oil and saute until the onions become translucent and take on a golden sheen. ~5-7 minutes.
- Salt the chicken pieces to taste and add to the pan. Saute for ~ 15-20 minutes stirring occasionally, covering the pan and adjusting the heat, as needed, until the chicken releases its juices.
- Add garlic, ginger, coriander, cayenne, nutmeg and mace. Saute for ~10 minutes stirring occasionally, covering the pan and adjusting the heat, as needed, until most of the liquid released by the onions and the chicken has been absorbed. If the chicken pieces start sticking to the bottom of the pan, cautiously sprinkle a little hot water, but be careful not to add too much liquid.
- Add the saffron to the yogurt and add to the pan slowly (a little at a time) over low heat to reduce the chances of the yogurt curdling.
- Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for ~30-40 minutes until the chicken is tender and the oil separates (the dish will take on a sheen). Check and adjust the salt in the last 5 minutes of cooking.
- In the last couple of minutes of cooking, add the green chilies, and ghee (if using).
- Turn off the heat and squeeze in a little lemon juice (if needed to adjust the level of sourness). Stir in the kewra water, raisins and slivered almonds (if using).
Serve With: Plain boiled basmati rice and a simple salad of sweet onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and mint tossed in olive oil, lemon, black pepper and salt.
*According to a handy Wikipedia summary, Mughlai cuisine developed in the imperial kitchens of the Muslim Mughal empire, a Chagatai-Turkic dynasty from Central Asia, which ruled the Indian subcontinent from the early 16th century until their slow demise throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.