A recipe for traditional chicken korma made in the Pakistani or North Indian style with chicken, yoghurt, whole spices and lots of fried onions. Serve with sheermal for the authentic Mughlai touch.
What is the origin of korma?
The original or traditional recipe originated from the courts of the Mughal dynasty which ruled over the Indian subcontinent over between the 10th - 16th centuries. Hailing from Persia, the Mughals introduced their cooking techniques to the Indian population, and one of them was to marinate meat in yoghurt with spices and onion and then simmering to tenderness. Ground almonds were added to thicken the mixture, with a dollops of cream to make it richer. The type of meat used was usually mutton (goat meat) or chicken.
During the time the Indian subcontinent was under British rule, many Indian recipes were simplified to suit British tastes. As Lizzie Collingham states in her book Curry “Lucknavi quaramas were transformed into Anglo-Indian ‘quoremas’ or ‘kormas’, which were different in substance as well as name”. And that is why the dish korma that is normally found in restaurants catering to continental tastes is a much milder version of the original recipe. The pronunciation of korma within the Urdu speaking community is also “qorma” with the q associated with the Urdu letter “qaaf” a sound that comes deep from the throat. Difficult to pronounce by non-native speakers, it’s replaced by the much simpler “kaaf” hence chicken korma.
So what is the traditional Pakistani style chicken korma (or chicken qorma as it’s called)?
My family immigrated from India at the time of the partition. Hence the food consumed at our home is similar to what was made by the Muslim cooks in the Mughal courts. Thus the korma recipe that I grew up eating was all about the onions and the yoghurt. Onions would be fried till they are brown, and then set aside. Then whole spices (sabit garam masala) would be heated with oil till they released their flavours after which meat and ginger garlic paste would be added. Once the meat (goat meat or chicken) was browned, yoghurt would be added, and the meat would cook in this mixture till tender. At the end, the crispy onions would be crushed and added over the chicken creating this beautiful caramelised onion yoghurt gravy. A few drops of kewra water (see note) and perhaps fresh ginger or sliced almonds to finish off the recipe. A traditional bread served with chicken korma is sheermal, a mildly sweet naan made with all purpose flour and yeast that is baked in a tandoor. It’s flavoured with saffron.
Type of meat used in chicken korma:
The type of chicken meat cuts used in Desi (Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Nepali etc) curries is bone-in skinless chicken, cut into pieces. Desi cooks don’t buy specific cuts of chicken (like chicken breast or chicken thigh) as the whole bird, skinned and cut into pieces, is used in curries. The sub-continental style of cooking chicken in a gravy ensures that even though a mix of different chicken cuts are used, they don’t dry out. In western countries, the curry style of meat cut is difficult to find at western supermarkets, but can be found in Desi butcher shops. Or you can buy a full chicken, skin it, and then cut it into pieces yourself.
In Pakistan, chicken is sold by the whole bird, and the butcher will de-feather and skin the chicken, and then cut into the required number of pieces; usually 8, 12 or 16 depending on the size of the chicken pieces required. Once the chicken is brought back home, it is divided into portions with a mix of meat cuts in each portion. Chicken is always available skinless, and if skin on chicken is required (for western applications like roasting or fried chicken), it needs to be ordered in advance from the butcher.
Looking for more Pakistani & Indian recipes for your weekly dinner inspiration. Check out the following:
- Ginger Chicken, Pakistani style
- Murghi ka Salan (Chicken curry with Onions and Tomatoes)
- Karahi Chicken
- Lobia ka Salan (Black eyed peas in curry)
- Aloo Gosht (Mutton Curry with Potatoes) – Stovetop & Pressure Cooker method
Traditional Chicken Korma
- ⅓ cup oil
- 3 medium onions, sliced
Whole Spices (Sabit garam masala)
- 8 - 10 green cardamom choti elaichi
- ½ teaspoon black peppercorn sabit kali mirch
- 4 - 6 cloves laung
- 1 inch piece cinnamon dar chini
- ½ teaspoon black cumin seeds (optional) kaala zeera
For the chicken
- ½ kg bone-in chicken pieces
- 2 cups yoghurt
- 1 tablespoon ginger paste
- 1 tablespoon garlic paste
- 1 teaspoon red chili powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 drops kewra essence see note for description
- 1 teaspoon sliced ginger for garnish
- ½ tablespoon sliced almonds for garnish
Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan over high heat. Add sliced onions, and saute the onions till they are golden brown and crispy. This process can take about 15 - 20 minutes. Remove the onions with a slotted spoon and put them in a steel colander or kitchen towel. This will absorb the oil, and make them crispy. Once the onions are cool, crush them lightly and set aside. Alternatively you can use fried onions (see note).
In the same oil that was used to fry off the onions, add the whole spices (green cardamom, black peppercorn, cloves, cinnamon, black cumin seeds).
Fry for 1 - 2 minutes to release the flavour and then add the chicken pieces. Fry for 2 - 3 minutes on medium - high heat and then add the ginger paste and the garlic paste.
Add red chili powder and salt.
Cook for another 2 - 3 minutes till chicken colour changes from pink to white, and the water evaporates.
At this point whisk the yoghurt and then add it to the chicken. Add 1 - 2 cups of water, and cook for 30 minutes - 45 minutes till the chicken is cooked through. The timing will differ based on the size of the chicken pieces you are using.
Once the chicken is almost done, add the crushed onions and let it simmer for 5 - 10 minutes.
Add kewra essence (if using) in the end, and serve hot with naan, sheermal or taftan.
Garnish with sliced almonds or sliced ginger.
Fried onions: Fried onions are an essential part of Pakistani and Indian cuisine forming the base of many different gravies. The process of frying them can take time, which is why bags of fried onions can be found in supermarkets and Desi stores easily. If using store-bought fried onions, add them at the same time you would add the normal onions - just cook for 2 - 3 minutes. Additionally, make sure that the onions you purchase from the store are fresh and not dusted in cornflour.
Kewra: Kewra is known as screw pine essence in English and is extracted from the thick leathery yellow green flower petals of the pandanus tree. It’s used in meat dishes as well as desserts and can be found in Indian and Pakistani stores by the name kewra water or kewra essence. The essence is more concentrated than the water, so be careful in using it.