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Craving good korma

When most people return from vacation, they’re packing a bagful of souvenirs, a camera full of photos and a head full of memories.

Me? I came home with a craving.

While in London this past fall, we enjoyed all kinds of culinary treats: Shopping at the glorious food halls of Harrods and Selfridges & Co. Finding divine yogurt and yummy English cheddar at Marks & Spencer. Lamb ragù with fresh pappardelle at Fifteen, in the hip Shoreditch neighborhood. Pad Thai at Soho Thai and braised rabbit at Arbutus, both near the West End’s Theatreland. Heck, even the coffee stand at the British Museum served up a memorable sandwich – brie with cranberries on baguette.

But it was the lunch we ate at City Spice, just off Fleet Street in The City, that has me wanting more. More chicken korma.

It’s no secret that in England, curry rules. Ten years ago, travel guides advised visitors seeking good food in London to eat Indian. England has undergone a culinary renaissance in recent years – think chefs Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Marco Pierre White – but the Indian influence still is undeniable. Wander through any commercial district in London and you’ll find a curry house. Or several.

Chicken tikka masala, which features tandoori chicken served with a spicy curry sauce, has been hailed as by the BBC as “Britain’s true national dish.” It is, perhaps, what most Americans would consider a curry – chicken cooked with a flavorful sauce sporting strong, fragrant curry, tomato and coconut undertones.

But it’s the chicken korma that grabbed my taste buds that day. Korma is milder and creamier, often made with yogurt and nuts. It uses garam masala, a spice blend that typically lacks turmeric, the spice that makes most curries orange. Korma is the curry for people who love spice, but not necessarily heat.

When I returned home, I set about trying to make chicken korma. I even called on Bombay Palace in Spokane for advice. Manager Wilson Carvelho put it this way: I could go online to find a korma recipe, but they’d all be wrong. Restaurant chefs, he said, work their own magic with the dishes. And as far as he knew, the chefs at Bombay Palace weren’t up to sharing their secrets.

Fair enough.

So, I turned to someone who doesn’t mind sharing her secrets. It’s what she does for a living. Anjum Anand lives in London and has written two books about Indian cooking. This past summer, she hosted a BBC television series called “Indian Cooking Made Easy.” Her book of the same name was published in the U.K. last year, and should hit U.S. bookshelves this year. She regularly writes for The Times of London’s online food section and is into making Indian cuisine healthy.

She set the record straight about curry. Turns out, there’s no one curry dish.

“Chicken curry is basically any Indian chicken dish that has a gravy,” Anjum wrote in an e-mail exchange. “So, depending on which region you ask the question, you will get a different answer. Chicken korma or qorma/qurma is at its essence a Muslim dish and as such can be seen in cooking in Kashmir in the extreme north, but also in Hyderabad from the south.”

In a Times column printed this past October, she referred to korma as a “royal” dish.

“I say it is a ‘royal’ dish because the ingredients used were expensive and not available to the average man – cream, nuts, saffron, certain essences,” she said, adding that its popularity lies in its mildness. “Those who are just starting to venture into this cuisine will have a well-flavored curry, but one that is not so strong of flavor as to be too unfamiliar. It is a sweet, creamy gravy with only a hint of coconut as a background flavor and that generally has a market anywhere.”

Recipes for korma vary widely. Anand’s includes green cardamom pods, ground almonds, creamed coconut, cinnamon, coriander seeds and cloves. It’s an ingredient list that will require some shopping around, but most things should be available at the area’s Asian markets or at natural food shops such as Pilgrim’s in Coeur d’Alene or Huckleberry’s in Spokane. Many of the spices also will be available at online sources such as thespicehouse.com, penzeys.com or amazon.com.

One could use boneless chicken breasts, but Anand wouldn’t. “Using bone-in chicken ensures your dish has that wonderful chicken flavor that you would otherwise add with chicken stock,” she said. “It also keeps the pieces of meat more succulent.”

I took her recipe for a spin. The results? Delicious. Anand told me the ground almonds add a rich nuttiness to the sauce, and she’s right. It’s a gorgeous, essential flavor. The coconut adds a backdrop to the whole and the yogurt brings creaminess to play.

You can make korma without the coconut, or use coconut milk, she said. “Korma should not have a strong flavor of coconut so even if you leave out the coconut, the dish will be delicious.”

The final dish will feature a number of whole spices. Anand said that’s typical.

“As an Indian, I always leave the spices in,” she said. “As they are quite distinctive against the pale gravy, you can spot them and set them to the side of your plate as you eat. But, of course, they can be fished out.”

If you do leave them in, be sure to warn inexperienced diners to watch out for them. Chomping into a whole clove can be jarring.

Most restaurant recipes use cream. Anand leaves it out to save fat and calories. If you want to add some, do so at the end when you add the coconut.

Above all, don’t mess with the color. American cooks who expect curries to be orange will be surprised by this korma’s pale beige hue.

“Please don’t add any turmeric or curry powders,” Anand said. “They will change the original character of the dish. If you find it bland to look at, a sprinkling of (cilantro) is always great. Or adding some fresh, whole green chilies will increase flavor and color, but without too much heat.”

Anjum’s Chicken Korma

7 ounces plain whole milk yogurt (see note)

1 heaped tablespoon garlic paste

1 heaped tablespoon ginger paste

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 1/2 pounds bone-in small chicken pieces, skinned and cleaned

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or ghee

10 black peppercorns

10 green cardamom pods

1 black cardamom pod (optional)

10 whole cloves

1 shard of cinnamon

1 piece of mace or 1 teaspoon ground mace

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

1 to 2 green chilies, left whole

Salt to taste

7 ounces water

2 1/2 ounces creamed coconut

3 tablespoons ground almonds

3/4 teaspoon garam masala

Good pinch of sugar

Handful of fresh cilantro and stalks, chopped

Mix the yogurt, garlic paste, ginger paste and ground coriander together in a nonmetallic bowl. Add the chicken, stir and marinate for at least 30 minutes or for as long as possible. Cover and put in the fridge if you have time to leave it longer. Bring back to room temperature before cooking.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick pan and add the spices, give the pan a good stir and add the onion, green chilies and salt. Fry for about 6 minutes until the onions are golden.

Add the chicken along with the marinade and the water. Turn the heat up and bring to a gentle boil (see note), then simmer, covered, over a lowish heat for about 25 to 35 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken pieces, until the chicken is tender, stirring every now and then. Add a splash of water if the pan gets dry at any stage.

Stir in the coconut and almonds, and cook, uncovered, for another 3 minutes until the gravy is creamy.

Add the garam masala, sugar and fresh cilantro, taste and adjust seasoning. Serve with rice or naan.

Note: Anand brings her sauce to a boil, which may cause the yogurt to curdle. It won’t change the taste, but it will affect the texture. To prevent this, the folks at Stonyfield Farm suggest stablizing the yogurt with starch before adding it to the hot pan. They suggest a ratio of 1 tablespoon flour per 1 cup of yogurt. For this recipe, you would add a heaping 3/4 tablespoon flour to the yogurt marinade. Or, use Greek yogurt, which is thicker and more stable in cooking applications.

Yield: 4 servings

Nutrition per serving: 423 calories, 28 grams fat (14 grams saturated, 60 percent fat calories), 29 grams protein, 13 grams carbohydrate, 73 milligrams cholesterol, 5 grams dietary fiber, 109 milligrams sodium.

There’s nothing much authentic about this recipe, but it delivers what it promises – a fragrant chicken curry in very little time. It’s perfect for those last-minute cravings. I’ve made it with both sour cream and yogurt and prefer the flavor of sour cream. I also like to add a handful of slivered almonds or cashew pieces at the end. It’s up to you.

Chicken Curry in a Hurry

From “The Minimalist Cooks at Home” by Mark Bittman

1 tablespoon canola, corn or other neutral oil

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder, or to taste

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, in four pieces

1 cup sour cream

Minced cilantro or parsley leaves for garnish

Put the oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add the onions, sprinkle with some salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium, sprinkle with half of the curry powder, and continue to cook a minute or two.

Meanwhile, season the chicken with salt and pepper to taste and sprinkle it with the remaining curry powder. Move the onion to one side of the skillet and add the chicken in one layer. Cook for about 2 minutes on each side. Transfer to a plate.

Add the sour cream and stir constantly over medium-low heat until the mixture is nice and thick. Return the chicken to the skillet and cook for a couple more minutes, or until cooked through, turning once.

Garnish with cilantro or parsley and serve with rice.

To use yogurt: After removing the chicken to a plate, turn the heat to low and wait a minute to add the yogurt. Stir in the yogurt and cook, stirring constantly over low heat, until the yogurt is hot. Return the chicken to the skillet and cook for two more minutes. At no point should the sauce boil, or it will curdle.

Yield: 4 servings

Approximate nutrition per serving: 289 calories, 18 grams fat (8 grams saturated, 55 percent fat calories), 25 grams protein, 8 grams carbohydrate, 102 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram dietary fiber.



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