Chicken korma – when I think of korma, honestly, I think back to a time when I was rather averse to Pakistani food as a teen (I know, how the tables have turned).
There was a handful of dishes I would rather starve than eat, and one of those happened to be a korma.
Why? Oh why, oh why, oh why?
I could never really get over just how oily they were. Not to mention all the floating whole spices. I spent most of my teen years thinking kormas were ghastly.
Then I actually tried one – my Mum’s lamb korma on a cool summers Iftar time. That day, it happened to not be so oily and the fragrance felt very soothing and warm. And I was truly blown away by how deeply delicious it was. Aromatic, comforting, and the meat so so tender and juicy.
My korma aversion disappeared that day. Now, you’ll find me happily dipping my naan into the flavoursome and aromatic korma sauce whenever it’s served at a wedding or dawat – even if it’s floating in a small pool of oil (hey, the spice-infused oil is TASTY! I’m a changed woman, yall)
What is a korma?
A korma is a meat-based curry dish made using a base of fried onions crushed and yogurt. It includes lots of warming, rich spices and is often served at special events such as weddings, parties and Eids. It’s a fancier-than-your-average-chicken-curry, luxurious dish and it is believed to have originated from the kitchens of the Mughal royals.
What makes a Pakistani chicken korma authentic?
When I talk about an authentic chicken korma, I go by what my mother has always told me. She’s always been firm that a korma is inherently different to other curries – it has distinct features that shouldn’t be toy with, otherwise it isn’t a korma anymore. Those are:
- One of it’s most striking, distinct features – crispy fried onions, crushed by hand and added in towards the end of the cook-time.
- Ok, gotta get this off my chest. I have seen loads of korma recipe variations which purée the onions before frying – I say nay to this because it’s impossible to get the same level of browning with purée vs sliced onions. This impacts the depth of flavour and the end colour. I’m totally a purist in this regard here – no to puréed onions in korma, please!
- You may also be tempted to keep your hands clean and just toss the fried onions into a grind for a nice, smooth paste. I know, so much easier, isn’t it? But another distinct feature of the korma is the grainy texture of the sauce – a silky smooth sauce is not what a traditional korma is like. If you really don’t want to get your hands dirty, then you may use a pestle and mortar to crush the fried onions but don’t crush them into a fine powder or paste. Texture is good!
- Warming spices such as cardamom, cloves, black peppercorns are used in this recipe to give it a more rich and pompous flavour
- The base of the Pakistani chicken korma is made from fried onions and yogurt. My recipe uses cashew nuts to further enhance the richness of the korma – this isn’t essential and many recipes don’t use cashews. Other recipes (particularly recipes used on the British Indian restaurant scene) often use double cream or coconut milk for this same purpose.
There’s no korma police that will come in and confiscate your cooking from you if you don’t do these things. I promise. I’m just laying out what the original korma recipe is like, so you have a foundation of knowledge – you can run with it, adjusting it to your preferences as needed.
What’s the difference between a korma and a curry?
You may have already guessed this if you read the section above. 10 points if you have 😉
The base of a korma is made from fried, crushed onions and yogurt and is rather rich due to the specific spices, whereas generally a curry base is made from onions and tomatoes and isn’t quite as rich.
Pakistani chicken korma ingredients
- Onions: red onions work great in a korma because they offer a deeper, more mature flavour as well as a better colour. White are fine too, but if you have a choice I’d definitely go with red. The finer you slice your onions, the better they will fry, the easier it’ll be to crisp them up and the easier they’ll be to grind by hand too. If you’re looking for a shortcut, you can use fried onions from a packet too but it will be a definite compromise on flavour. If you use prefried onions, about 3/4 of a cup will suffice for the quantities in this recipe.
- Chicken – this recipe calls for skinless chicken, bone in, cut into curry pieces. You can use boneless too if you must but this recipe truly works best with bone in – more flavour and depth.
- Spices: cloves, cardamom, bay leaf, peppercorns, coriander, cumin – these all create a warming, luxurious flavour which is distinct in a korma. You may feel like the aroma and flavour is similar to biryani flavours – and that’s because indeed a korma spice mix is very similar to a biryani.
- Yogurt: this plays a very important role in the korma therefore it’s important to choose a good quality yogurt – the best kind will be full-fat, greek yogurt. If you can’t get greek yogurt, any kind of full-fat is fine. Top tip: beat your yogurt well before adding it in – it helps prevent curdling, and it also incorporates air into the yogurt to make the texture smoother
- Cashews: OK, so I thought A LOT before adding these into the recipe. The korma I grew up having didn’t have cashews, but I tried this recipe both with and without the cashews and honestly, the cashew version really blew the cashew-less one out of the water. So I’ve included them, but please scroll down to read about substitutions if you can’t or don’t want to include them. This recipe calls for them to be ground into a paste with some water before adding.
- Kewra water: This adds a very authentic, characteristic and floral scent to the dish. It really gives the korma that finishing wow factor. If you can’t access kewra water, it’s OK to omit this.
- Almonds: blanched, used for garnishing
How to make Pakistani chicken korma
We start off by heating some oil/ghee in a deep pan or pot and adding in some sliced onions. I always prefer ghee over oil, but today I used oil Slicing the onions thinly as opposed to dicing or roughly chopping them is really important – they won’t crisp up properly otherwise.
You’ll need to stick around closely, stirring often and making sure the onions are browning evenly.
Once the onions are an even, deep shade of brown, remove them with a slotted spoon and spread them out over some tissue on a plate and allow them to cool down – these will crisp up as we continue on with the korma. It’s important to spread them out a little, otherwise they won’t become crispy.
In the same vessel, add bone-in chicken, spices (all listed in the recipe card), ginger and garlic. Fry this all for a few moments, until the chicken no longer remains pink
Follow this up with full-fat yogurt and cashew paste. Fry this until the mixture thickens, looks glossy and the oil begins to separate at the sides
Please note, this picture above is when I added in the yogurt and cashew paste. I didn’t quite manage to get a picture of it once the mixture had become glossy
Once your mixture has come to its glossy stage, add in 400mls of water, bring to a boil and then cover with a lid and cook on low for 30 minutes.
Whilst the korma is cooking away, your fried onions should have cooled down completely. Crush these either using your hands or a pestle and mortar until they are broken down but not into a fine powder or paste. It’s important there is some texture in the onions – it is what gives a korma it’s distinctive grain.
Once your korma has cooked for 30 minutes, remove the lid and add in the ground onions. Stir, then allow everything to cook for 10 minutes.
Once the cook time is up, stir in kewra water. You can adjust the amount of this based on your own preference.
Garnish with blanched almonds before serving!
How to blanch almonds
There are two ways to do this:
- Soak them in a bowl of water for a few hours or overnight. The skin will peel right off!
- If you’re short on time, you can boil the almonds rapidly for a few minutes, until you see the skin begin to separate away from the whites. Remove from the water, cool, and then peel off the skin
Substitutes for cashews in this chicken korma
I did a trial of this recipe both with cashews and without. And honestly, we much preferred it with the cashews – it added SO much depth, richness and flavour.
For many reasons, you may not want to add cashews. That’s absolutely fine too!
Here are some substations:
- Use an equal amount of almonds (blanched, otherwise the paste will be brown, not white like we want it to be)
- Omit the cashews entirely and replace with an additional 1/4 cup of yogurt
- Use 1/4 cup of double cream or coconut milk
- If you’re OK with using cashews but don’t want to use as much as stated in the recipe, you can reduce the amount and make up for the shortfall by using any of the aforementioned substitutes.
What to serve with chicken korma
In my opinion, a traditional Pakistani chicken korma goes best served with fresh, hot naan. It has also traditionally been served with Sheermal, which is a sweet bread available fresh in Pakistan and frozen from Asian grocery stores if you live outside of Pakistan.
Traditionally, a korma is not garnished with fresh coriander as many Pakistani curries are. You may garnish it with blanched almonds and some crispy fried onions.
Other recipes you may enjoy
- 125ml oil/ghee
- 200g onions, sliced finely (about 2 small or 1 large onion)
- 1 chicken, approximately 900-1000g, bone in, cut into curry pieces
- 1 bulb of garlic, minced
- 1tbsp minced ginger
- 150g full fat yogurt
- 1/2 cup cashews, ground into a fine paste with water (see notes for substitutions)
- 4 black cardamoms
- 16 green cardamoms
- 15 cloves
- 2 bay leaf
- 1tsp black peppercorns
- 1 medium sized cinnamon stick
- 3tsp coriander powder
- 1tsp cumin powder
- 1tsp red chilli powder
- 1-2tsp salt (to taste)
- Kewra water, 1tsp or more as per preference
- 20 almonds, skins removed
- Heat the oil/ghee in a deep pot or pan. Add the sliced onions and fry them over a medium to high heat, stirring often and keeping a very close eye on them to ensure they brown evenly. You may find you need to turn the heat down after a while if they look like they may be browning too quickly/unevenly.
- Once the onions have turned a dark brown (not black!), use a slotted spoon to remove them and rest them spread out on a paper towel. Set aside - these will crisp up as we work on the korma
- Add the chicken, spices, ginger and garlic to the oil in the pan. Fry this over a medium to high heat, until the chicken no longer remains pink
- Add in the yogurt and cashews paste. Fry everything well, stirring the entire time, until the oil begins to separate from the sauce of the curry and looks glossy.
- Add in 400ml of water, bring everything to a boil and then cover with a lid and cook on a low heat for about 30 minutes
- As the korma cooks, once the onions have cooled down completely and become crisp, you can crush them using your hands or a pestle and mortar until they are broken down into a textured mixture. Don't crush them into a fine powder or paste.
- Take the lid off and stir in the onions. Return the lid and cook for a further 10 minutes.
- Add in the kewra water. Give everything a taste and adjust the chilli and salt if needed
- Garnish with almonds just before serving
- If you don't want to use cashews, you can substitute them completely for either 1/4 cup of double cream, coconut milk or an additional 150g yogurt. Alternatively, you can use almonds instead of cashews, too.