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Friday, May 25, 2012

Mughlai Cuisine and a Gentle Chicken Korma

Chicken Korma and a Rice Pilaf--where oh where are my almonds for garnish?

Mughlai Cuisine and a Gentle Chicken Korma
by Victoria Challancin

In the mid-70s, right after I completed my studies in graduate school, I was recruited to open a school for an American company working in Abu Dhabi.  Incredibly lucky me, I got to see what was practically the birth of a new nation, a gold-rush of sorts, and experience an amalgam of diverse cultures coming together to forge a burgeoning, exciting new global melting pot.

One of the strongest elements of the local food scene was Indian food, from the smallest hole in the wall places that catered to workers to the most elegant of restaurants geared to the affluent locals and expats.  In the 80s, when I taught at the university in Bahrain, I saw the same influences repeated, from the most humble to the most sumptuous...Indian food...delicious and so appealing, from the north, from the south, from the coast, from the mountains.  And I was hooked.  Forever.

Each trip to India that I made further strengthened my appreciation of the wildly varied Indian cuisines of different regions.  My first visit to India allowed me to explore the foods of North India, especially Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab.  Another time I spent two months in the south of India, savoring the differing cuisines of Goa, Tamil Nadu, and more.  Once, with my cousin and a friend, I even drove from Europe all the way through Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass and south as far as Lahore, Pakistan, fascinated all the way by the smells and tastes of alluring exotic spices, enticed by culinary sensations of Indo-Pakistani culinary treasures.  And while I learned over time to appreciate the panch phoran and mustard oil of Bengali food, the fiery coconut-lace dishes of the hotter climes, the biryanis of Hyderabad, the spicy pork vindaloo curries from Goa, seafood from Karnataka, back-water treats from Kerala and so very much more--I always seem to return the one style that originally stole my heart and captivated my culinary imagination in ways I have never exhausted:  the Mughlai cuisine predominant in the northern part of India.  A true feast for all the senses.

Mughlai-Style Chicken Korma--on another day, from another class

Mughlai Cuisine
Mughlai Cuisine, simply put, is the style of cooking that developed in India in the imperial kitchens of the Mughal (often called Mogul) Empire.  Strongly influenced by the Muslim Persian and Turkic cuisines of West and Central Asia, Mughlai cooking is rich and complex, ranging from very mild to outrageously hot, redolent with spices, rich with creamy, buttery sauces, enriched with nuts and fruits, and laden with elaborate blends of spices that meld together to give off unmatched aromas, unparalleled flavors.

One of my favorite of many northern dishes is a simple chicken (murgh) korma (sometimes written qurma, khorma, or kurma), thickened with nuts or seed pastes, enriched with cream or yogurt.  The word korma comes from the Turkish verb for roasting or grilling (kavurma) or perhaps derives from the Hindi and Urdu words for "braise"--I have seen both roots cited.  Whatever the origin of the word itself, the dish is thought to have originated in the imperial courts of the 16th-century Muslim conquerors of northern India, whose food in turn was influenced by the rich dishes of nearby Persia.  

A korma is defined as a dish of meat or vegetables slowly braised in a minimum of stock or yogurt or cream after first being cooked or seared over high heat.  Recipes and techniques vary, of course, but the resulting dish is usually an unctuously rich curry of unsurpassed flavor.  Sometimes kormas are made of meats or poultry, sometimes of vegetables, but however they are made, they are truly delicious, complex and interesting.

Mise en place of spices for several dishes prepared in a recent class on Indian cooking

In the last month or so I have taught two classes featuring Indian cooking, one to a group of Americans, another to my regular Mexican students.  In both classes, I found myself gravitating to the Mughlai cooking of the north of India.  In both classes, I taught this chicken korma.  This particular dish, which I learned to make over thirty years ago, is still a favorite that never fails to delight.

Cook's Notes:  I've made this dish and the accompanying rice pilaf so many times that I hardly know how I do it.  I had to retrace the steps in my head to put this to paper, but since it has been tested twice recently, I can vouch for its success.  Do take the time to make your own ghee--it is so worth the effort in the richness of flavor in the final dish. [I have taken a couple classes with the amazing and unsurpassed Indian cook/cookbook author/actress Madhur Jaffrey, who once told her students you could even use olive oil for the fat in Indian cooking, but to my humble taste, that just doesn't work--make the ghee!]  Remember not to grind your bay leaves as tiny pieces can actually cut the esophagus.  I have three electric grinders:  one for coffee, one for dried chiles, and one for spices--so worth the small investment if you use as many spices as I do.

Recipe:  Muglai-Style Chicken Korma
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Serves 8.

For the marinade:
1 (2-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
1 cup plain yogurt
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon (or to taste--go by color) ground turmeric

3 pounds boneless chicken (thighs or breasts), cut into 1-inch cubes

For the spice blend:
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 tablespoon coriander seeds
6 cardamom pods, seeds only
1 3- to 4-inch stick of cinnamon
2 bay leaves
5 cloves

1/2 cup sliced almonds

3 to 5 tablespoons ghee or butter

2 medium onions, finely chopped
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1 cup chicken stock or water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup sultanas (golden raisins) or raisins

1 teaspoon garam masala (make your own if possible--see recipe below)
2 teaspoons sugar (optional, but somehow it rounds out the taste)
1 teaspoon sea salt or to taste

Optional garnish:  chopped cilantro 

Place the ingredients for the marinade in a food processor and purée until smooth.  Transfer to a bowl or a heavy plastic bag.  Add the chicken pieces.  Stir bowl or mix in bag until chicken is well-coated.  Marinate in the refrigerator for 1 hour.

Place the spices for the spice blend in a small dry skillet and lightly toast for a minute or until spices give off their fragrance.  Remove the bay leaves and set aside.  Place remaining spices in a clean spice grinder and grind until spices are pulverized.  Set aside.

Lightly toast the almonds in a dry skillet.  Toast over medium heat until lightly browned, stirring frequently, being careful not to burn.  Place 1/4 cup toasted almonds in a blender with 1/2 cup water.  Purée the mixture until smooth.  Set aside.

Heat three tablespoons ghee in a large heavy pan.  Scrape the marinade off the chicken and reserve it.  Lightly pat the chicken dry with a paper towel.  Add the chicken to the hot ghee in batches if necessary, adding more ghee as required.  Be careful not to overload the pan because at the point you that the chicken to fry rather than stew.  Cook the chicken just long enough to seal on all sides; it should still be pink on the inside.  Remove to a plate.

Add another tablespoon of ghee if necessary.  When hot, add the onions and cook until softened and lightly browned, stirring frequently, 3 to 5 minutes.  Add the ground spices  and bay leaves and cook for another 30 seconds, then add the ground almond paste and cook for another 30 seconds.  Add the reserved marinade and cook until the mixture begins to color, 3 to 5 minutes.  Add remaining 1/2 cup yogurt, chicken stock or water, cream, and sultanas.

Return the browned chicken to the pan along with any juices that have collected on the plate.  Sprinkle with the garam masala, sugar (if using), and salt over the chicken mixture.  Add a bit of additional broth or water if mixture seems too dry.  Cover and cook on lowest heat possible for 20 minutes, testing to make sure the chicken is cooked through.

Garnish with remaining 1/4 cup almonds and cilantro, if desired.

Note:  This dish is best cooked the day before serving and stored overnight in the refrigerator. 

The Rice Pilaf...this time with toasted almonds

What is Garam Masala?
Garam Masala is an aromatic spice mixture that is commonly used particularly in Northern Indian cooking, though it is found elsewhere in India, and in some South Asian cuisines, where the Indian influence is apparent in some of the dishes.  The words garam masala come from the Hindi for "hot" (garam) and "mixture" (masala).  It has been explained to me by Indian cooks that I knew in Bahrain, that rather than being hot from chile content, it is really a blend of spices characterized by their warmth, pungent and intense, but not piquant.

Used in small quantities at the end of the cooking process or fried in the beginning, garam masala 
adds a subtle depth of flavor, but never overwhelms a dish.  As with curry powder blends, if you take the time to make your own, and you'll never return to the pale commercial versions again.  Be sure to toast the spices first, always opting for the whole versions of spices and seeds when possible, toast them, and then grind to a powder.

Cook's Notes:  This particular blend works for me.  Variations abound, of course, of course.  Sometimes the blend includes powdered ginger, saffron or mace.  Amounts vary as well.  This particular mixture is one I learned that seems to have a balanced flavor that if used judiciously, doesn't over power any dish.
Recipe:  Garam Masala
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Makes about 1/2 cup

2 tablespoons cumin seeds
2 tablespoons coriander seeds
2 tablespoons cardamom seeds (discard the pods)
2 tablespoons black peppercorns
1 4-inch stick cinnamon, broken into pieces
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg

Put the cumin, coriander, cardamom, peppercorns, cinnamon, and cloves in a small dry heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Toast the spices, stirring frequently, until fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Cool completely.

Working in batches if necessary, transfer the mixture to a spice mill or clean coffee grinder and grind to a powder.  Stir in the nutmeg.  Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry, dark place.  Garam Masala keeps for about 3 months before losing its freshness.

Another version of rice pilaf 

Basmati Rice and an Easy Pilaf
Until I lived in the Middle East, where local grocery stores had barrels of different rices, each one more fragrant than the last, I never understood the beauty or potential depth of this common ingredient.  I grew up in South Florida, with a mother who hailed from Georgia, and I thought of rice as just some starch created to go under my mother's fabulous cream gravies.  I shudder now to think of the rice of my childhood, though I would swim to Florida if I could just taste my Mom's gravy once again.

Those barrels of fragrant rices opened up a new world of exploration for me.  And while Basmati rice might not be what you need for Southeast Asian, Chinese, or Japanese cooking, it is surely a necessity for Indian cooking.

Although India is renowned for its production of a variety of rices, the delicate, long-grained Basmati is one of the most highly prized.  And rightly so.  Produced in the foothills of the Himalayas, this rice has an incredible, aromatic fragrance and a delicate texture and flavor.  The word basmati in Hindi translates as "Queen of Fragrance."  I've also read that in Sanskrit, it means "the fragrant one."  With grains longer than most other types of rice, basmati is characteristically free-flowing rather than sticky.  Identifiable by its singular fragrance, basmati rice is truly unique.  It comes in both white and brown varieties, though the brown version isn't available to me here in San Miguel.  ¡Lástima!

Cook's Notes:  This is another one of those recipes I make au pif, as I talked about in my last post.  Sometimes I use turmeric, sometimes I don't.  Sometimes I splurge on beautiful, gentle saffron, dissolved first in warm milk or water.  Sometimes not.  Chicken broth?  Fine (I actually prefer it to water)--except not for my vegetarian husband.  Raisins?  Dates?  Even dried cranberries?  Sure.  Sometimes I even used ground coriander and cumin seeds.  I am a heathen, I've always suspected it, and I like to leave my whole spices in the finished dish.  I just like the way they look and their forms appeal to my senses, both visual and olfactory.  Also, this makes a lot:  reduce the amount of rice and liquid as needed.  Do use the towel method explained at the end of the recipe to finish off your rice--it helps make the rice particularly fluffy.  Be flexible.  Create your own mixture of flavors.

Recipe:  Basmati Rice Pilaf
(Recipe by Victoria Challancin)
Serves 10 to 12 a side dish

2 tablespoons ghee or butter
4 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns (if the idea of whole peppercorns bothers you, omit or use ground)
6 cardamom pods, bruised
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric (optional)
2 1/2 cups basmati rice
4 cups water or chicken broth
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup raisins (golden or dark) or slivered dates.
1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted, for garnish (or pistachios, cashews, or even pumpkin seeds)

Soak the rice in cool water for twenty minutes.  Drain well.

In a deep heavy saucepan heat the ghee.  Add the cloves, peppercorns (if using), cardamom pods, cinnamon stick, cumin seeds, and turmeric.  Stir constantly over medium-high heat for 45 seconds.  Add rice and sauté for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently or until spices are fragrant and rice is translucent.

Add the water or broth.  Raise the heat, bring to a boil, top with a tightly fitting lid, lower heat to lowest setting, and cook for 18 minutes.  Turn off the heat.  Sprinkle with raisins.  Cover with a clean dish towel and put the lid back on the pan.  Allow the rice to rest, covered like this, for 10 minutes or even up to an hour.

When ready to serve, fluff the rice with a fork and garnish with the toasted sliced almonds.  You could also garnish with chopped cilantro, if desired.  Remove whole spices if you don't like the looks of the whole ones.

The same pilaf made without the turmeric

Parting Shot:
A flowering plant from my garden 

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.

Like life, recipes are meant to be shared, but please ask permission before using photos or text.  Thanks!


Marina@Picnic at Marina said...

beautiful meal, and it does look very gentle...

Hotly Spiced said...

I love Chicken Korma and you have a great recipe for it here. Love how you cooked the rice too. You certainly have lived an interesting life. I haven't been to the Middle East - the region certainly has wonderful cuisine. xx

Ali said...

This chicken Korma looks delicious...and you're journey from Europe through to Pakistan sounds fascinating!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thanks, Marina--it was the best word I could think of for this curry: gentle. It is soft, comforting, vaguely exotic, and just pleasant in every way.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thanks to you too, Charlie. We've all had interesting lives--your blog is living proof!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Ali--it is a really good, mild curry. Indeed it is. And as for that journey, it was a trip of a lifetime, full of adventures, color, and life. Thanks for the comment.

Eha said...

What a wonderful food lesson during a cold winter's day! Bookmarked for a long return visit as it deals with food I so love. Tho' I have been lately cooking more Goanese seafood recipes and my favourite Keralan vegetables, perhaps I too should go back to the gentle elegance of the Mogul dishes: Beautiful, Victoria . . .

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you, Eha. Your comments are always so well-thought out, erudite, and appreciated.

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Your posts are always so delightful. I go away with a wonderful recipe from a different part of the world but also a little history as well.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you, Karen. I appreciate your kind comments and am glad there is something useful as well.

FOODalogue said...

You have such a wealth of knowledge of world cuisines and a gift of presenting them in an informative and attractive way. It's always a pleasure to visit.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Thank you so much for that, Joan. It means a lot.

Sally - My Custard Pie said...

Those early days in Abu Dhabi must have been incredible. You wouldn't recognize the place now! The Gulf cuisine draws a lot from Indian influences. Beautifully explained.

Jenny @ Ichigo Shortcake said...

Chicken korma's one of my favourite curries, it'll be perfect to have in this cold Melbourne weather...I can do with a bit of kick. Love your stories, it was an interesting read :D

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

This is a popular dish at our house! It's perfect for Winter with a lovely naan bread and rice :)

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Jenny, Sometimes I put more kick to this dish as well, depending on the diners, but either way, it is just comforting. Glad you liked the story as well.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Lorraine, I always smile as I read blogs or magazines from your hemisphere and realize that while we are sweating it out, you are snuggled down looking to stay warm. And vice versa. For me, chicken korma comforts at some level that transcends the weather--I can eat it anytime!

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

I know, Sally--the Gulf has changed to the point where so much is unrecognizable. I've been back a few times in the past couple of years and I just can't believe the difference! Thank you for you nice comments.

Angie's Recipes said...

What a great chicken korma! said...

It looks incredible...the rice, chicken and your parting shot...

Balvinder said...

Mughlai Cuisine is my consistent favorite. Biryanis, Korma are couple of them to name.
Madhur Jaffrey is a reputed author of indian cooking books. You chose a very good recipe to post and done very well in making it.

Victoria at Flavors of the Sun said...

Balvindar, thank you for your kind comments. I realize that as much as I love Indian cuisine, I am coming at it from the outside in. When a native praises my recipe, I feel an immense satisfaction. Thank you.

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