Monday 6 March 2017

Soul Food on A Cool Night: Chicken Korma

I had the privilege recently of  having a long discussion about good food. Almost as good as eating the same.

This time around it was a lively discussion around food on board. A passion of mine. The company consisted of myself and a bunch of sailors from India, no less. These sailors were asking questions about food on board and provisioning. This after they had just completed the Cape to Rio Yacht race and brought the boat back via the notorious southern Atlantic ocean. A feat not to be sneezed at.

After some time, during the discussion, I came to the realisation that they sailed the boat from India to Cape Town, then participated in the Cape to Rio race, then sailed the boat back to Cape Town, all without a refrigerator on board. Around ten thousand nautical miles across the sea. Now they have to sail the boat back to India. Another voyage of around thirty-five days at sea, non-stop. It took a moment or two for me to realise the enormity of the provisioning problems on hand. A very interesting exchange of ideas, especially for a relative novice like me.

The conversation went around dried meat and other dried provisions, pickling of fish, baking bread and growing sprouts, amongst other things.

Of course, then we got hungry from the talk and the topic morphed to recipes. Why am I not surprised?

We discussed at length the merits of the various spices and their uses, and then I struck gold. We exchanged recipes.

Chicken korma. One of my favourite recipes. No heavy spice, just an explosion of aromas and flavours. And the weather here in Cape Town has taken a turn to cool. Opportunity, indeed!

I have made this dish several times before. All very tasty. This time around I got some proper info on what the locals do in India. My own interpretations appear to be but a watered down version of what the dish should be.

This dish is soul food par excellence. And one has to prepare it with passion. Otherwise just go and get a take-away sandwich. The dish is simple to make, with some preparation required. Nothing onerous. The preparation is where the passion comes in. The flavours all comes with the preparation and process. Simple spices, commonly available.

The first rule for this dish is to roast the whole spices, including the almonds, then grind them to a powder before use. Roast them separately, as the grain sizes differ and therefore the roasting time will differ.

Then fry the onions before taking the blender to them. Along with the roasted almonds. This time, after my discussion with the intrepid Indian sailors, I used coconut cream instead of water. The dish needs a very thick onion sauce to cook the chicken.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let's start at the beginning. Ingredients first.

Chicken Korma with coconut cream


600 g chicken breast fillets
2 large or 3 medium onions, chopped coarsely
1 cup yoghurt
½ cup almond slivers
2 cups coconut cream (1 can)
2 tsp coriander seeds (Whole dhania)
2 tsp cumin seeds (Whole jeera)
1 tsp whole jeera (Another, keep separately)
1 tsp black mustard seeds
¼ tsp asafoetida (hing)
2 tsp turmeric
5 green chillies, finely chopped
3 cinnamon sticks
1 ½ tsp freshly ground garlic
1 tsp freshly ground ginger
1 tsp red chilli powder. (Cayenne pepper will work for the South Africans)
some water
some butter, ghee or cooking oil
some coriander leaves for garnish
basmati rice


Cut the chicken into thumb size bites and marinade in the yogurt with the turmeric and red chilli powder. Leave for 30 minutes while you prepare the sauce and the dry spices.

Roast the mustard-, coriander- and cumin seeds separately in a dry pan, then grind it all to a fine powder. Add the hing.  Roast the almond slivers. Keep the almond separate from the rest of the spices. All this effort is what will determine the eventual flavour, so take care. And this is the bulk of your effort, the rest is a no-brainer.

Fry the onions and cinnamon sticks in the butter until the onions turn brown, then add the fresh chillies, garlic and ginger. Fry these for another 30 seconds, then add the almonds. Add the coconut milk, then blend the onion, almond and spice mix to a thick sludge. If the sludge is too thick, add a little water. You need a thick sauce for this dish.

Bring this lot to a slow boil, then add the ground spices to the sauce. Mix through, then add the marinade with the chicken. Add salt to taste. Turn the heat down so that the dish only just bubbles. Now add the raw cumin seeds.

Cook until the chicken is done.

In the meantime, soak the rice and cook as per instructions.

Dish up with some fresh coriander leaves as garnish.

And be careful, there are a lot of sensual flavours that creep out of this dish and through your soul. And you may have made too little food...

Bon appetit!

Authored by Johan Zietsman

Last updated on 2017-03-06