In 1987 I was sent to Ooty (Oothagamandalam) to cater for the United Breweries’ annual conference spread over seven days.
My job was to manage a team of chefs from the hotel and look after the breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, cocktails and dinner for all the UB guests during their stay.
That was the easy part.
The challenge was in trying to create a theme for every meal (lunch and dinner).
We had a Moghlai theme, Hyderabadi, Rajasthani, Moplah (Kerala Muslim) . . . and ten others!! The team of chefs consisted of six, all ranging in age from 48 years and up and the oldest was around 60-years-old!!
How was I to manage these chefs, some of whom were older than my father?
The answer came on the very first day. On that day we had a Moghlai theme with plenty of kebabs (cooked on the spot), biryani, zaaffraani murgh, and etc.!! Amongst the guests were some from Europe who had never seen anything like this before!
As the buffet picked up and everyone got into the rhythm, one guest walked up to me and said, “Why do you add nuts to your food? I am sure you can still make it taste good without the nuts.”
I was foxed and had no answer; we had been adding nuts to our kormas for yonks!!! How would I know? I was just a cook, not a historian or a scientist!!
Enter Rahamatullah (he had been cooking for about 25 years, hailed from Kashmir and then travelled to Hyderabad where he had settled down and worked for the royal family; when the opportunity came along he had moved to Ooty to work at The Savoy), who very politely said to this Firangi guest, “Sire, Indian food, especially kormas, require nuts because they are necessary, they act like a roux to the sauce”.
This was getting interesting. I listened intently as he continued explaining to the guest, “The ground almonds hold the korma together and help bind it because kormas are made from yoghurt and yoghurt, as we all know, splits when cooked. A split sauce is not very appetising to the eye and tastes like – !!” And Rahamat left the sentence unfinished, eyeing the guest who he saw had understood his meaning.
So, I was sent to manage this kitchen which had a total age experience of nearly 150 years. How could I, with less than ten years’ experience under my belt, ‘manage’ these men? These guys needed someone to help them liaise and coordinate the varied menus, not a manager. They were masters in their own ways, they were Ustaads and they had the experience, expertise, know-how and the technique that can only be acquired over the years.
That night Rahamat also explained how a korma from the north becomes a khurma in the south.
A korma, according to Rahamat, is a sauce made from yoghurt and spices that suit the meat (protein), with the addition of onions, garlic, ginger, chillies and a good stock. Nuts are added as the yoghurt starts to cook; the nuts have usually been soaked in milk and ground to a paste, just like a roux.
The nuts used vary from region to region depending upon their availability; so in Kashmir we add almonds, the korma then travels down south and reaches Hyderabad where peanuts are commonly used due to their abundance along with ground sesame seeds also called ‘tahini’ (this is the Persian influence that infuses Hyderabadi cooking) and desiccated coconut. This is a Hyderabadi korma.
As the korma travels even further south, all the nuts are replaced by coconut, and it is now called a khurma!!!
How beautiful!! I wish all this had been documented by our forefathers as Indian food would have been recognised as a ‘cuisine’ and not just a bl..dy curry!!
Be that as it may, here is my version of a Hyderabadi korma with chicken, just for you!!
Anah Daata Sukhi Bhava!!!