I sampled a wonderfully rich vegetable dish at an Indian vegetarian restaurant in Los Angeles owned by a Sikh chef. The dish, navratan korma, was made of diced vegetables in a buttery sauce, enhanced with little chunks of paneer, or Indian cheese, as well as cashews and raisins. One of the chef's two turbaned sons, who were in charge of serving, explained that this dish was cooked in the northern Indian style.
In fact, korma is a category of Indian specialties. I had eaten lamb korma before, but this was my first taste of a vegetarian korma. According to Jennifer Brennan, author of Curries and Bugles: A Memoir and a Cookbook of the British Raj, "Korma is actually the Indian name for the technique of braising meat. It originated in the lavish Moghul cuisine wherein lamb or chicken was braised in velvety, spiced sauces, enriched with ground nuts, cream and butter. While kormas are rich, they are also mild, containing little or no cayenne or chillies."
Brennan flavors her lamb korma with fresh ginger, sauteed onions, garlic, ground coriander, black pepper, cardamom, cloves and turmeric, as well as lime juice and sugar, and thickens it with ground almonds and cream. Others use rich yogurt instead of cream.
Julie Sahni, author of Moghul Microwave
, compares Moghul food to classic French cuisine and calls it "the food of the aristocrats... represents splendor, beauty and a certain elegance in every dish." In fact, she notes, this style did not originate entirely in India. The Moghuls, who ruled the subcontinent from the 16th to the 19th century, were originally from Turkish Persia, and brought many cooking techniques and dishes from their native land, and then incorporated Indian ingredients.
Sahni considers korma of vegetables "an aristocratic vegetarian masterpiece." This is noteworthy because she makes the dish from common vegetables - her recipe features carrots, turnips, green beans and cauliflower. It's the sauce and spices that make vegetable korma a dish fit for nobility. The vegetables are cooked in milk and then added to a sauce of tomatoes and cream flavored with sweet spices - cinnamon, cardamom and cloves, as well as fresh ginger and a little cayenne. Other vegetable kormas are enriched with nut butters or fruit purees.
Stendahl, author of The Bombay Palace Cookbook
, makes luxurious korma dishes using butter and heavy cream with a liberal hand, raisins and almonds as garnishes and saffron as a primary seasoning. He calls navratan korma "a jewel-like fantasy of vegetables," and notes that the word navratan translates as diamonds; to make it, you use nine vegetables and cut them into diamond shapes. This recalls French classic recipes that call for carving vegetables into pointed ovals, tiny squares or other shapes.
Kormas were first prepared in the Moghul kitchens in northwest India and gradually spread to much of the country. Maya Kaimal, author of Savoring the Spice Coast of India
, presents a south Indian version of the dish as prepared in Kerala. Hers is a chicken korma, enriched with coconut and cashew paste, which is perfect for kosher cooking. Kaimal's korma is peppery; in addition to the usual ginger, garlic and sauteed onions, her version includes hot green chilies and cayenne pepper.INDIAN CHICKEN BREASTS IN ALMOND CASHEW COCONUT SAUCE
This dish is inspired by a specialty I learned from Indian cooking expert Neelam Batra, author of 1,000 Indian Recipes
. Neelam flavors the sauce for this aromatic chicken dish mostly with fresh seasonings rather than dried spices, and then thickens it with ground almonds and cashews. She makes it with yogurt; I use coconut milk to make it kosher. Serve this luxurious dish with plenty of hot cooked rice, preferably basmati.
You can keep the chicken, covered, for two days in the refrigerator. If necessary, add a few tablespoons coconut milk or chicken broth when reheating.1.4 kg. or 1.5 kg boneless skinless chicken breast halves
a 1- to 2-cm. piece fresh ginger, peeled and cut in 4 pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 small onion, quartered
1 medium tomato, quartered
1⁄2 cup chopped fresh coriander
1⁄2 cup coconut milk (unsweetened)
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 or 3 dried red peppers (optional)
10 almonds, ground
10 cashews, ground
1⁄4 tsp. ground cloves, or to taste
1⁄4 tsp. ground cinnamon, or to taste
3 whole black cardamoms, pounded lightly
Salt and pepper to taste
Fresh coriander sprigs and tomato wedges for garnish
Cut each chicken breast half in two pieces.
Process ginger, garlic, onion, tomato and cilantro in a food processor or blender until well blended.
Heat oil in a large pan over medium heat and saute whole dried peppers for 1 minute. Add almonds, cashews, cloves, cinnamon, cardamoms, salt and pepper. Saute 1 minute, stirring; do not let spices burn.
Immediately stir in onion-tomato puree, followed by chicken pieces. Stir in coconut milk. Cover and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium and cook until chicken is tender and sauce is thick, about 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If sauce is not thick enough, uncover pan and cook for a few minutes longer.
Garnish with coriander sprigs and tomato wedges and serve.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
MOGHUL VEGETABLE CURRY
This vegetable dish, enriched with almonds, butter and yogurt, is from Charmaine and Reuben Solomon's book, The Complete Curry Cookbook. I have added cumin to their list of spices, and raisins and fresh coriander as a garnish. Their recipe calls for ghee, or Indian clarified butter. If you can get Yemenite samneh, which is similar, you can substitute it. Otherwise use butter or vegetable oil. Use any combination of vegetables you like, cut in small pieces, or even a frozen vegetable medley. Cauliflower, broccoli, mushrooms, turnips, zucchini, white squash (kishuim), corn kernels and pumpkin are also good in this dish.
The Solomons recommend Indian bread as an accompaniment. Fresh pita is also good instead, or you can serve the creamy vegetables with basmati rice.
1⁄4 cup blanched almonds
6 whole cloves
2 tsp. cardamom seeds
1 tsp. dried fenugreek leaves (optional) a 5-cm. cinnamon stick, broken
2 tsp. chopped garlic
1⁄2 tsp. chili powder, or cayenne pepper
1⁄2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground cumin (optional) hot water for blending the spices
3 Tbsp. ghee, butter or vegetable oil
1 large onion, halved and finely sliced
1⁄4 tsp. ground saffron
4 cups diced mixed vegetables (carrots, potatoes, beans and peas)
1⁄2 cup natural yogurtsalt to taste
1⁄2 cup water
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (optional)
3 to 4 Tbsp. raisins (optional)
Place almonds, cloves, cardamom, fenugreek leaves, cinnamon, garlic, chili powder and turmeric in a blender with enough hot water to enable the blades to move freely. Blend to a paste, and remove.
Heat ghee in a saucepan, add onion and fry it for 7 minutes or until soft and golden. Stir in the spice paste and fry it until it smells fragrant and the ghee comes to the surface. Add saffron and stir in mixed vegetables and yogurt. Add salt and 1⁄2 cup water and bring to a simmer. Cover and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are tender. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt and cayenne if you like. Serve garnished with fresh coriander and raisins.
Makes 4 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of Feast from the Mideast.