The qorma is the king of Indian curries. The word qorma has its etymological root in the Turkic ‘qavirma’, which denoted a method of frying and was adapted in Persian, Arabic and Urdu.
Turkic qavirma is also the source of the Turkish qavurma. The qavurma is a fried and braised meat dish found in Turkish cuisine. It is not to be confused with qovurma, a similar meat stew found in Azerbaijani cuisine, which often includes dry fruits and sour grape juice (verjuice), and sometimes vegetables too. Qovurma, in contrast, is a dry meat dish, which sometimes uses preserved meat chunks or mincemeat, and is served with pilaf (pulao) or yoghurt. There are several variations of qavurma. Sabzi qovurma, or lamb stew with herbs, is a blend of Persian and Turkic cooking. Turşu qovurma combines lamb with preserved lemons and dried apricots and is flavoured with turmeric, while nur qovurma features lamb and pomegranate.
Persian cuisine has khoresh, khormeh or ghormeh – a basic stew with vegetables, herbs and kidney beans. The Persian khormeh uses yoghurt and almonds. It has a mild flavour, a thick, creamy texture and base tones of spices and herbs. Across the border, Afghan cuisine has kormeh, a meat curry that gets a slightly sour taste from the use of the limu omani or dried lemons. The use of lemon juice is incidentally also advocated in old Rampur cookbooks.
It can be hard to trace precise culinary trails, which meander and weave through regions and times. It is possible that sometime in the 18th century, in Mughal kitchens, the meat stew from Persian cuisine assimilated spices, yoghurt, almonds, garlic and other ingredients. This resulted in a thick, spicy curry, with fried onions giving it a classic aroma. Even today, fried and crushed or ground onions with whole spices form the foundational flavour of the Indian qorma. Thus, qorma is named after a style of cooking which involved braising meat over high heat followed by long slow cooking. In India, the technique of dumpukht, or slow-cooking the meat by sealing the pan, is used to prepare the meat.
Some food writers claim that a Persian meat curry dish (possibly khormeh) was imbued with Indian masalas through the collaboration of Rajput cooks and Mir Bakrawal, the superintendent of Mughal kitchens. It is sometimes even said that the dish was named after a Rajput clan – Kurma. This origin myth for qorma is highly suspect as no reference to qorma is found in the Ain-i-Akbari or the Nuskha-e-Shahjahani written during the time of the early Mughal emperors.
There are, however, a number of qaliya recipes to be found there. Food historian Neha Vermani writes: “In the Mughal context, the earliest reference to qorma which I am aware of, comes from aristocratic cookbooks produced during Shah Alam’s reign.” Possibly the qaliya and do pyaza metamorphosed over the years into the Indian qorma in Mughal kitchens.
It would be safe to assume that by the end of the 18th century, the qorma was on the royal menu. As the Mughal Empire disintegrated, it was carried to cultural centres across the subcontinent. The iconic recipe certainly graced the dastarkhwan, the royal table, of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. Munshi Faizuddin Dehlvi, writing with startling detail about the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar in Bazm-e Akhir, mentions the qorma in the list of dishes at the royal tables.
There are essentially three main variants of the qorma in the subcontinent – the north Indian qorma with yoghurt, almonds, cashews and/or cream; the Kashmiri version that uses fennel seeds, turmeric, tamarind and dried cockscomb flowers; and the South Indian qorma with a pronounced coconut taste. Under the rubric north Indian qorma, there are two styles: Mughlai and Awadhi. According to Lizzie Collingham, the author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Awadhi cooks added cream to the Mughal qorma and turned it into a sumptuous shahi qorma.
Rampur Qorma: Reflections of Tarana Husain Khan
The Nawab’s kitchen had a specialist khansama, or head cook, who only cooked qorma. A manuscript authored by Nawab Kalbe Ali Khan (1865-1887) describes qorma murgh. Chicken is marinated in yoghurt and spices (cumin, coriander seeds, cardamoms, cloves, ginger and chillies); onions are fried to golden brown and the chicken added to it along with saffron water. The use of powdered almond distinguished it from the qaliya, a basic meat curry with turmeric which might contain vegetables.
Rampuri qorma has a distinctive taste – a meaty flavour with few aromatic masalas and, occasionally, cream. It is not a complicated dish to cook, but balancing the flavours and rounding the sharp edges of the spices requires mastery. Most khansamas never reveal their spice mix or the ginger-garlic-onion proportions.
An old khansama revealed the secret of the legendary Rampur qorma to me: add the stock from the leg bones of a goat to the gravy. I tried this technique once – it was tedious, but it changed the dimensions of taste. I would highly recommend using mutton stock for special occasions.
Rampur survived the devastation post-1857 and invited chefs and artists from the fallen kingdoms of Delhi and Awadh. At that time, the Rampur cuisine already had its basic meat curries as well as the tribal qaliya. There are several types of qaliyas described in late 19th-century manuscripts, showing its popularity and versatility. The Delhi and Awadh cooks collaborated with their Rampur counterparts to craft the inimitable Rampuri qorma.
Qorma served with pulao is still the benchmark of culinary skills in Rampur, but the boundaries between qorma and qaliya have become blurred. Taar roti, which was originally a qaliya with turmeric, has become a kind of faux qorma with the addition of fried onions – the sine qua non of the latter dish. The qorma served at elaborate dinners often has a significant amount of turmeric, which would be sacrilege in Mughlai and Awadhi cuisines. Interestingly, royal and aristocratic families do not use turmeric in their qorma, but the practice has become popular across all other strata. The Rampuris love the vermillion-red colour of the curry and appreciate a certain sharp flavour added by the turmeric. Though I prefer the more rounded taste of qorma sans turmeric, when I am in an adventurous mood, I put in a little haldi to jazz things up.
Awadhi Qorma: Recollections Of Rana Safvi
In my childhood, qorma was associated with guests, festivities and celebrations. Our daily meals consisted of qaliya, or mutton cooked with vegetables. This menu choice ensured that vegetables were consumed daily.
Though chicken qorma is popular today, chicken was not always the preferred meat. Those were also the days when chicken was quite expensive (weight-for-weight) compared to mutton, and it was thus a delicacy. Murgh ka qorma was the ultimate dish cooked for a guest. All this was before the late Padmashree Dr BV Rao revolutionised the poultry industry. He established Venkateshwara Hatcheries Pvt Ltd in Pune in 1971 and is still remembered as The Father of the Indian Poultry Industry.
To this day, I associate chicken with feasts. I even prefer the desi variety over the farm-grown, as the latter is too bland. The epicures of Awadh, too, probably found chicken bland, for Abdul Halim Sharar writes in Guzishta Lucknow (a book about Lucknavi culture first published in serial form between 1913 and 1920) that the chickens used to be fattened with musk and saffron pills until their flesh was scented with these two substances. Since nobody can afford musk- and saffron-fed chicken, to ensure that the meat is not bland, it is best to marinate it in a garlic, salt and yogurt mix for a few hours and then sauté it in the masala before adding water for the curry, so that the masala seeps in.
Chicken was not the only meat that was used for qorma. Game meat (especially venison, quail and partridge) was also very popular, as hunting was a popular pursuit of the landed gentry before it was banned. Now, farm-grown quail is available and bater ka qorma is gaining in popularity. But one must remember that quail is a very delicate meat, so the masalas have to be minimal in order not to drown out the flavour. Indeed, while cooking any qorma, it is essential to remember this fact. Too often, the meat in the qormas is overpowered by the masalas. The special taste of Awadh is in the delicate flavouring as compared to the robust taste of Delhi cuisine.
I was accustomed to using very minimal garam masala. When I got married, that turned out to be boon – or I would have had to reinvent my recipes. My husband is allergic to cardamom, which almost led to a disaster. My wedding was held at home, as was usual in those days. Tents and shamianas would be erected on people’s lawns, as hotel weddings were unheard of. The cooks were called from Lucknow. I remember the old khansama sitting near my mother a couple of days before the wedding and presenting her with a list of ingredients to be bought. When he gave the amount of cardamom to be bought, my mother said, “That won’t be added to any food as my son-in-law-to-be is allergic to it.” I will never forget the look on the khansama’s face when he replied, “Begum sahib, had you told me earlier, I would not have come. What face will I show the world when they see that the qorma has no elaichi in it?” My mother had to coax him not to leave in a huff, persuading him that the taste was in his skill of using right proportions, roasting the masalas, marinating the meat and not in the blighted cardamom! The khansama then took it on as a personal challenge and the qorma turned out to be superb.
There is rarely any cardamom in my kitchen even now. I believe that the taste of the dish comes from the amount of time spent in roasting the masalas well – not in drowning it in oil and garam masalas.
To come back to the qorma, a feast would be considered complete only when there were at least two types of qorma, zarda (a sweet rice) and pulao, as well as at least two varieties of kababs and sheermal (a flatbread). This formula also meant that at least three types of meat such as mutton, fish and chicken were offered. Again, there would be adjustment in the masalas depending on the meat. Ginger paste continues to be used for meats with strong smell and those that are tough to digest. Fish, on the other hand, requires a delicate hand when using masalas.
There were cooks of yore who specialised solely in cooking qormas. In The Classic Cuisine of Lucknow: A Food Memoir by Nawab Jafar Hussain (Sanatkada Publications), there is an interesting anecdote. In 1925, Nawab Jafar Hussain – a descendent of the nawabi aristocrats of Lucknow – came across a cook named Mohammad Hussain who belonged to a family of cooks from the royal period. When the Nawab sahib asked him what he could cook: “He replied in the typical Lakhnavi tone of voice, ‘Sir, qorma and chapati. Besides this, what else is there in food? I will feed you only this. I do not know how to cook anything else.’” Nawab sahib immediately employed him and he stayed with him until his death in 1931. Before you wonder at this, let me add what Nawab sahib pointed out: “In the period of approximately five years, every day, for both meals, he cooked qorma and I never felt even a twinge of monotony.”
Though such artists are hard to come by, it is possible to cook a decent qorma if one uses the spices from scratch. That means you roast and grind all the garam masalas, coriander, etc. fresh just before starting to cook. There must be many people who remember the storeroom with their mothers sitting in front of it, getting the masalas taken out and ground fresh daily. The khansamas would grind it on a huge sil (grinding stone) with a batta (stone). The garam masalas were dry-roasted and then pounded separately in an imam dasta (mortar and pestle) and then strained. In those days, hardly any house used powdered masalas.
Another important point to be noted is that the meat (if it is mutton) should be from the raan (leg). The pieces in Lucknow would be cut with artistry and called katoris (bowls) – for they did not have bone and would curl up into a round shape in the curry. Today, when we ask the butcher for boneless mutton, he tells me to show him a boneless goat. These butchers lazily chop the meat instead of cutting along the grain.
While cooking, special care must be given to ensuring that the onions are fried just right, as the base of the qorma comes from the paste of fried onions. If it is too brown, the curry will taste bitter and have a dark colour; if it is not fried well and left a little raw, the colour of the qorma will be pale. The trick of a khushrang qorma (the bright reddish-brown hue) is in the way the onions is fried and the masala is sautéed. I learned these tricks as a young girl around the wood fire chulha (stove) in my grandparents’ kitchen, while my grandmother would describe the cooking process. I share this family recipe for you to try. Of course, as you start cooking, you will learn to make your own adjustments.
Awadhi Murgh Qorma
Our Family Recipe
1 whole chicken, cut in curry pieces (cleaned; no skin or offal)
(Note: marinate chicken for at least 2 hours in 1 tsp salt, lemon juice & 1 tsp of ginger-garlic paste)
1 large onion, finely sliced
3 tbsp oil
2 tbsp curd
1 tbsp ginger paste
1 tbsp garlic paste
1 tbsp coriander powder, lightly roasted on a griddle
½ tsp garam masala, freshly ground or powdered
¼ tsp whole peppercorns
2 green cardamom
2 bay leaves
2 drops kewra
1 cup water
¼ cup fresh cream, well beaten
Salt and chilli to taste
A few strands of saffron, soaked in 1 tbsp of warm milk
- Add the cloves, peppercorns, cardamom and bay leaves. Toss in the onions and fry until golden brown. This takes about 4-5 minutes on low heat.
- Remove the onions and spices from the oil, making sure the oil is drained back into the cooker and set aside. Remove bay leaves. The rest should be ground to a fine paste.
- Shake off excess water from the chicken. Add the pieces to the oil and fry lightly.
- Add the ginger and garlic pastes, chilli and coriander powder. Sauté, adding dashes of curd at intervals to prevent the mixture from sticking or burning. This process will continue for at least 10 minutes
- When the oil separates from the masala, add the garam masala, salt, paste of fried onions and bay leaves. Stir for a minute. Add the water and cook until the meat is tender. Keep the flame low and the pot covered.
- Strain the cream if you are using fresh cream from home, so that it is smooth consistency. Add cream, saffron and let it simmer for two minutes.
- Add 2 drops of kewra water (mixed in 1 tbsp of water) before serving.
Please note: Do not garnish the dish with green coriander leaves. That garnish is reserved only for qaliya.
Our thanks to Neha Vermani for her careful reading and suggestions on an early draft.
This article is part of the project “Forgotten Food: Culinary Memory, Local Heritage and Lost Agricultural Varieties in India”, curated by Tarana Husain Khan and edited by Siobhan Lambert Hurley and Claire Chambers. It has been funded by Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts & Humanities Research Council in the United Kingdom. Read the other parts here.