Mild, Indian curry paste made from delicate blend of fragrant whole spices like cardamom, cumin and coriander seeds, pureed fresh aromatics and cashew nuts.
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01. What is a Korma Curry?
Korma is a mildly-spiced Indian curry that has a thick, creamy consistency and a bright ochre colour. The body of the sauce comes from a pureed onion and a cashew nut paste, while the colour comes from ground turmeric. The characteristic creaminess comes from the addition of yoghurt, although some recipes use cream or coconut milk instead. However, because cashew nuts that have been softened and then pureed to a paste provide a naturally thick and creamy base, it is very easy to create an authentic dairy-free version. You can replace yoghurt with water without compromising on the texture or taste, as long as you add a squirt of lemon juice at the end of cooking to replicate the tanginess. In fact, it is the liberal use of cream that has given korma a bad reputation as a bland and boring curry, as the cloying richness tends to overpower the delicate spices.
02. How do you cook a curry?
Curries are liquid or semi-liquid dishes in which chopped vegetables or meats are braised in a smooth sauce that has been flavoured with spices and aromatics, and thickened without the use of flour. Although Indian cuisine enjoys fantastic regional diversity, the cooking method is remarkably similar for most curries. Most curries start with the aromatic flavour base of onion, ginger and garlic – in much the same way as most European dishes start with onion, carrot and celery. (For more information on cooking curries, read my article How to cook curries from scratch and with curry pastes.)
- aromatics: chopped onions are added to the pot first, and fried until their juices have been released and evaporated. Minced ginger and garlic are then added and fried only briefly, to avoid burning them and developing bitter flavours.
- spices: next, ground or whole or whole spices are added to the hot oil in order to release the flavour compounds. These are added in a particular sequence, as some spices need longer to cook out the raw flavour, while others burn very quickly.
- liquids: once the spices are fragrant, some form of liquid is added in order to stop the spices from sticking to the bottom of the pan and burning. This could take the form of chopped tomatoes, stock, coconut milk, cream, yoghurt, or just plain water.
- thickeners: a thin sauce will pool at the bottom of the plate, rather than clinging to the meat and vegetable pieces. Some liquids act as natural thickening agents, but, if a thin liquid like water is used, then pureed onion, peppers, ground nuts, or lentils can be added.
- main ingredient: now the main ingredient can be added. This could be chopped mixed vegetables, fish, diced meat, meat on the bone or pulses. If meat is used, it is common to tenderise it before cooking by massaging it with lemon juice and salt for 30 minutes, or to marinade it for several hours in a spice paste. Once the main ingredient has been added, the sauce is kept at a gentle simmer until the ingredients are tender and cooked.
- acids: adding a souring agent helps to brighten the dish and balance the flavours of sweet onions and creamy fats. They are usually added towards the end of cooking, as heating destroys the flavour of acids. Examples include lime juice, yoghurt, vinegar, tamarind, fruit or tomatoes.
03. What is a curry paste?
A curry paste is a wet spice mix made by blending ground spices with fresh ingredients like aromatics and herbs into a thick puree. Ground nuts and seeds may also be added, and the mixture may be loosened by adding liquid. Making a curry from scratch can be time consuming. Most of the hands-on time comes from the preparation of the aromatics and spices, which need to be measured out in exact quantities, and then ground or minced. Happily, it is a kitchen task that benefits from economies of scale – that is, it is actually easier to puree a whole head of garlic in the small bowl of a food processor, than it is to mince a couple of cloves on a chopping board with the back of a knife. For the same amount of work, you can make several extra portions of curry paste at the same time, and keep them in the fridge for a quick and easy meal.
04. How do I store home-made curry pastes?
A curry paste should be stored in a sterilised glass jar in the fridge. You can sterilise jars by putting them through the dishwasher on a rinse cycle without detergent, or by boiling in a large pan of water for 10 minutes, and then removing and leaving to air dry. Once the paste has been transferred to a jar, use the back of a spoon to press the mixture down and eliminate air bubbles. Pour a layer of neutral-tasting oil like light olive oil on top to create an airtight seal. This should be poured off before using. In the meantime, it stops airborne bacteria from getting in, and protects the surface from oxidising. Most sealed curry pastes will keep in the fridge for at least 3 months, although the flavour and colour will naturally degrade over time. For full potency, curry pastes are best eaten within 1-2 months. Curry pastes are not suited to freezing, as strong flavours intensify and change during frozen storage. You can home-can curry pastes using the water bath method, but only if they have high-acid ingredients like pureed tomatoes. Otherwise, you need to use a pressure canner to process the paste at a high enough temperature to kill botulism spores.
05. Can I prolong the shelf-life of a home-made curry paste?
If you are making curry pastes for longer storage (more than 1-2 months), you could add some natural preservatives to stop the fresh aromatics from going mouldy. Bacteria are living things, and rely on the presence of oxygen and water for growth. They cannot grow in acidic environments. Adding acidic liquids like vinegar, lemon juice or tomato puree means that the curry paste will keep for longer. This will change the flavour of the curry, and you may need to add some sugar to temper the acidity. Taste and adjust the seasoning a few minutes before serving, when the flavours have fully developed. If you don’t want to tinker with the recipe, then you can try to kill as much of the micro-organisms that naturally exist in food as possible before bottling. Gently fry the paste for a few minutes until it starts to steam.
06. How do I use curry pastes?
Because the spices are raw, curry pastes need to be fried in hot oil to release the flavours when used to cook a curry. As essential oils are not soluble in water, it is important not to introduce too much moisture to the pan during this ‘blooming’ stage. This is why any fresh aromatics like onion, garlic and root ginger are fried first, and cooked until their juices have been released and evaporated. The curry paste can then be added to the pan, and stirred constantly to prevent it from sticking to the bottom and burning. It is important to keep cooking the paste until the oil separates out. When this happens, the paste takes on a slightly curdled appearance as the oil oozes out to the sides and forms a greasy layer on top. This indicates that all the water has evaporated, allowing the temperature to exceed 100°C/210°F. This breaks down the heat-sensitive emulsion that kept the oil dispersed in the water. It is important to cook the curry paste to this stage, because higher temperatures are needed to develop the flavour, and stop the spices from tasting raw. Once this happens, the liquid base and the main ingredients can be added, just like cooking a curry from scratch.
07. What dishes can I use a Korma Curry paste in?
Korma curry is usually made with diced chicken breasts, but you can also use this paste with lamb, beef or firm vegetables such as cauliflower and sweet potato.
Recipes that use a Korma paste:
- 1/2 cup (75g) cashew nuts
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 2 black cardamom pods
- 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 1 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
- 5 tablespoons (75ml) olive oil / neutral-tasting oil
- 1 onion (130g), peeled and quartered
- thumb-sized piece of root ginger (20g), peeled
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tablespoons (40g) tomato puree
- 1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
- Soak the cashews. Cover the cashew nuts in warm water and leave to soak for at least 45 minutes. You can start them soaking the day before, but avoid soaking for more than 16 hours.
- Toast the whole spices. Break open the cardamom pods by crushing with the broad side of a heavy knife. Shake out the seeds and discard the husks.
- Heat a small frying pan over a medium heat. Add the whole spices (cardamom seeds, cumin seeds, coriander seeds and black peppercorns) and dry fry for 1 – 2 minutes, or until they release a fragrant aroma.
- Grind the toasted spices. Tip the toasted spices into a spice grinder and grind until finely ground (if you do not have a spice grinder, then use a pestle and mortar or the small bowl of a food processor). Set aside.
- Grind the cashews. Once the cashew nuts have soaked for 45 minutes, drain and tip into the small bowl of a food processor. Blitz until smooth. If the mixture needs loosening, add a bit of the oil.
- Purée the aromatics. Add the aromatics (onion, ginger, garlic and tomato puree), and blitz until smooth.
- Add the ground spices. Tip in the toasted spices, the ground spices (turmeric, garam masala, salt and chilli powder), and the oil. Blitz to a smooth paste.
- Bottle the paste. Transfer the paste to a sterilised glass jar, using the back of a spoon to press the mixture down and eliminate air bubbles. Pour over a layer of neutral-tasting oil like light olive oil (this should be poured off before using). Seal, and transfer to the refrigerator. For best results eat within 1 month. If storing for longer than 1 month, fry the paste for a few minutes until it steams before bottling.