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Eric Akis: An Indian dish for those who don't like it hot

If you don’t like your Indian food too spicy, make korma.
Indian-style korma, rich with coconut milk, spices, cashews and a mix of vegetables. ERiC AKIS

If you like Indian-style food, but prefer it to be rich with spice, but not be spicy hot, make korma.

According to Charmaine Solomon’s classic book, Encyclopedia of Asian Food, korma is a term that simply indicates that it’s a braised dish. It often features an onion-rich, yogurt, cream and/or coconut milk base with protein-rich nuts, such as cashews or almonds, blended in.

Solomon says that korma, which is also spelled in other ways, such as kurma or qorma, was originally a Mughal-influenced creation. Over time it became popular throughout India and, beyond Asia, eventually other continents where Indian food is enjoyed.

Because it’s been prepared for so long in many different places with varied taste preferences, when reviewing recipes for korma, I was not surprised to find many variations on how it was made. But what’s being braised in many korma recipes is mutton, lamb or chicken. There are also meat-free recipes for korma, such as mine, stocked with a mix of vegetables.

Beyond such things as garlic and ginger, what gives korma its robust and appealing taste is the mix of dried spices added to it. They could include, depending on the recipe, such things as cinnamon, coriander, cardamom, cumin, saffron, peppercorns, cloves and/or turmeric. Spice blends, such as garam masala and/or curry powder, and pastes, such as curry paste, are also added to some korma recipes.

In Solomon’s book she says that korma would be quite authentic without any spicy-hot chilies, but there are recipes that do incorporate them into the dish. My version of korma was not one of them. And I wanted it to be something you could partially make in advance and fairly quickly pull together when mealtime rolled around.

The make-ahead part of the equation started with me par-cooking and then refrigerating some of the vegetables I would add to my korma. They include cut carrots, potatoes, cauliflower, red bell pepper and green beans. I also chopped the onion, garlic and ginger I would also need for the korma and refrigerated them too.

When it was time to make my korma, in a pot, I cooked the onions in oil until golden and tender. In stages, the garlic and ginger was mixed in, along with my chosen spices and some tomato paste. The next step was to add a can of coconut milk and some unsalted cashews.

That mixture was then simmered a short while, before being puréed into a sauce for the korma that was brought back to a simmer. At that point my par-cooked vegetables were added to the pot along with some frozen peas. The korma was simmered until the vegetables were piping hot, some chopped cilantro (or sliced green onion) was mixed in, and then it was ready to serve.

To make a meal, serve the vegetable korma with steamed rice and naan bread or chapatis. Although not noted in my recipe, for added richness, you could also dollop a bit of thick yogurt on each serving of korma. And, if you do want a hit of hot spiciness, serve it with lime pickle, a salty, sour and spicy Indian-style condiment sold in the Asian foods aisle of grocery stores.

Vegetable Korma

A saucy, full of flavour, nicely spiced, vegetable korma you could serve with steamed rice and naan bread or chapatis.

Preparation time: 40 minutes

Cooking time: about 40 minutes

Makes: three servings

12 miniature red or white potatoes, each halved, or 1 cup red or white potatoes, unpeeled and cut into half-inch cubes

1 small to medium carrot, sliced into thin rounds (about 1/2 cup)

12 to 14 green beans or snap peas, trimmed and cut, widthwise, into 1-inch pieces

1 small to medium red bell pepper, halved, seeded and cut into half-inch cubes

2 cups cauliflower, cut into small, 1-inch wide florets

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium onion, diced

2 to 3 large garlic cloves, chopped

1 Tbsp chopped fresh ginger

2 tsp madras curry powder or mild or medium curry powder

1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground coriander or ground cardamom (or a mix of both)

3 Tbsp tomato paste

1/8 tsp ground turmeric (optional)

1 (400 mL) can coconut milk

1 cup vegetable broth

12 unsalted roasted cashews (see Eric’s options)

1/2 cup frozen peas

2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro or thinly sliced green onion, or to taste

• roasted unsalted cashews, coarsely chopped, to taste, for the table (optional)

Place the potatoes in a small pot, cover with cold water and set over medium-high heat. Bring potatoes to a simmer, lowering the heat as needed to maintain that simmer. Simmer potatoes until just tender, about eight to 10 minutes. Drain potatoes well and set on a large plate.

Bring about three inches of water to a boil in an eight-inch or so wide pot set over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, return to a boil and cook 90 seconds. Add the beans (or snap peas), bell pepper and cauliflower, return to a boil and cook those vegetables and the carrots until just tender, about two minutes. Drain the vegetables well, cool with cold water, and then drain well again. Set those vegetables on the plate with the potatoes (see Eric’s options).

Clean and dry the pot you cooked the cauliflower and other vegetables in. Set pot over medium, medium-high heat and add the oil. When oil is hot, add the onions and cook until very tender and lightly browned, about 10 to 12 minutes. Mix in the garlic and ginger and cook one minute more. Now mix in the curry powder, cinnamon, coriander (and/ or cardamom), tomato paste and turmeric, if using, and cook one minute more. Add the coconut milk, broth and 12 cashews and bring to a gentle simmer. Lower heat, as needed, to maintain that gentle simmer, and then simmer five minutes.

Remove pot from the heat and then purée the coconut milk mixture in a food processor or blender, or right in the pot with an immersion (hand) blender. Set this korma sauce back on the heat and taste and season with salt and pepper, as needed. Mix in the peas and the vegetables and potatoes on the plate. Return to a simmer, and then simmer a few minutes, or until vegetables and potatoes are very hot. Mix in the cilantro (or green onion) and serve the korma, if desired, with chopped cashews, for sprinkle on it once plated.

Eric’s options: You can par-cook the vegetables, and chop the onions, ginger and garlic, needed for the korma many hours in advance. Cover and keep them refrigerated until you are ready to make the korma. Whole almonds could replace the cashews called for in this recipe.

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Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section on Wednesdays and Sundays.