Malai Keema meatballs

I created this dish with inspiration from the much-loved Malai Koftas of India.  Malai, in hindi means "clotted cream" or what some consider Devonshire cream, and a koftha is a dumpling.  When I had my restaurant, A Taste of India, back in Ohio in the mid-90’s, one of my most popular dishes was the Malai Koftas.  It is a Northern Indian dish from Kashmir that is often served as the crown jewel of weddings or special occasions where meat is not served and its truly divine! It is the vegetarian alternative to meatballs. It goes very well with naans (tandoor-baked flatbread) or roti (whole wheat home made bread) and especially Basmati rice. Malai Koftas are spicy little balls of Indian cheese (Paneer) that are deep fried and then served drenched in delicious, creamy and spicy gravy of fresh cream, cashews, onion tomato sauce and is nothing short of sinful indulgence.

I created Malai Keema Koftas as a lighter, less sinful version of this wonderful dish.  I incorporate ground turkey which is lean and low in fat, but also has some substance to it for meat lovers, and there is no deep frying involved in my recipe.  I also pack it full of vegetables featuring spinach, Italian zucchini and carrots.  These meatballs are tempting and tender, seductive and succulent.  There is indeed a great deal of effort and work involved in making this special dish, but as they say, good things come to those that wait.   

Some people like to make these meatballs with ground lamb or ground beef and those also come out well, however since the gravy is a quite rich, I prefer to use ground turkey or ground chicken. 

Keema Malai Koftas

Prep Time: 30-45 minutes
Cooking Time: 60 minutes
Serves: 4-6 adults

You will need:

            For Kofthas (meatballs)

  1. 1 pound ground turkey or ground chicken.  This is enough to provide a healthy serving for four adults allowing each person to have 3 healthy-sized meatballs. (Because this dish takes a lot of work, its not a bad idea to double the recipe and have enough to freeze for a second full meal.)
  2. 1 medium size Italian zucchini.  Since size is relative to many people, Let’s say your zucchini should be the size of a big banana.  Smaller than an English cucumber but bigger than a pickling cucumber. The zucchini should be peeled and grated.  Best to use the bigger grating blade than the finer one. 
  3. 1 pound fresh, well-washed spinach leaves.  This may seem like a lot of spinach compared to the turkey, but once all the water is drained out, just a small amount of spinach remains.  Spinach should be very well-washed if it is not already washed.  Nothing ruins a dish more than the grit of a molecule of dirt grinding between the teeth, so if you are not buying washed spinach, be sure to douse and dunk in cold water 2-3 times to make sure all the dirt is off of fresh spinach.  Drain in a colander.  Cut spinach with a knife into thin strips.
  4. 1 large thick carrot or 2 regular size normal carrots or 10-12 baby carrots.  Grate carrot on bigger grating blade like the zucchini.
  5. 1 tablespoon of salt to sweat vegetables.
  6. 1 cup Panko crumbs or bread crumbs.  I prefer Panko the most, but you can use Italian spiced breadcrumbs or plain, or if you don’t have breadcrumbs, toast 3-4 slices of bread and grind in food processor making them into crumbs.
  7. 1 egg
  8. 1 tablespoon ground coriander powder.
  9. 1 teaspoon ground cumin powder
  10. 1 teaspoon salt for meatballs
  11. 1 teaspoon dry ground garlic
  12. 1 teaspoon dry ground ginger
  13. 1/2 teaspoon chilli powder or cayenne pepper or black pepper, whatever your pleasure, depending on your heat tolerance. Those that like it hot can skip the dry pepper altogether and opt for a small fresh green chili or 1/2 a jalapeno pepper.
  14. 1 teaspoon garam masala powder
  15. 1 1/2 tablespoon oil. I like to use sesame oil in this recipe, but canola oil, olive oil, peanut oil, ghee or even butter work just as well.

You will need a big mixing bowl to prepare ingredients in.  Start by combining the shredded zucchini, shredded carrots and cut up spinach in this large bowl.  Mix all three ingredients well with your hands.  Add 1 tablespoon of salt to the zucchini, carrot and spinach mixture and mix it all up very well.  Let this mixture sit covered for about 20 minutes.  This will cause the vegetables to “sweat” or release all the excess water.  Once this happens, Grab handfuls of the vegetable mixture and squeeze very tightly to get all the excess water out.  Set the drained and squeezed vegetables aside.  Discard of all the water that you manage to squeeze out of the vegetables.  This water will contain a lot of the salt, so no need to worry about too much salt.

Back in your big bowl now, mix the drained, squeezed vegetables, 1 ½ tablespoon of oil and ground turkey.  Add all of your dry spices (1 tablespoon ground coriander powder, 1 teaspoon ground cumin powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon dry ground garlic, 1 teaspoon dry ground ginger and 1 teaspoon garam masala powder).  Add egg and 1 cup of Panko crumbs (or breadcrumbs) and mix this whole complicated mixture very well with your hands.

This is your meatball mixture.  If you want to test the flavor, make a teeny tiny baby patty & sauté it on the stove in a frying pan if you like.  Taste it.  If it needs anything extra in your estimation, this is the time to add it.  Once you are happy with the taste, make small meatballs out of the entire mixture and set aside on a small plate.  I like meatballs to be about the size of a table tennis ball. 


For Malai Sauce (gravy)

1.      2 large Onions, peeled and chopped roughly.

2.      2-3 inches of fresh peeled ginger, I'd say the length of two fingers, or about 3 inches long. Ginger should be peeled and cut very fine, or ground up in a food processor or even grated.

3.      5 cloves fresh Garlic

4.      1 inch Cinnamon Stick

5.      1 or 2 bay leaves

6.      4-5 large Tomatoes, pureed OR 1 16 oz. can of stewed tomatoes

7.      ½ cup of cashews

8.      1 Pint fresh heavy whipping cream (You can use sour cream, or even low fat or fat free sour cream or even 6 oz. of greek yogurt, if trying to keep this dish on the lighter side)

9.      1  and a 1/2 teaspoon  Garam Masal.  (You will use 1 teaspoon in the gravy and 1/2 teaspoon to finish the dish right before serving) 

10.  1 teaspoon ground cumin

11.  1 teaspoon salt

12.  1 tablespoon ground coriander powder.

13.   1/2 teaspoon tumeric powder

14.  1/2 teaspoon chili powder (or cayenne pepper or fresh chili if you like gravy hot)

15.  1/2 teaspoon sugar

16.  1 ½ tablespoon Oil (Canola or Sesame is ideal.  Butter or Olive oil is OK also)

To make your Malai Sauce and cook the Keema Kofthas first select a good, heavy, generous large pot with a lid.  Non-stick pots are great. The key to making a beautiful malai keema kofthas is the ability for the meatballs to fully cook in the gravy and the steam so you want a pot that has a good fit with its lid. You also want enough room to stir up the meatballs to coat them well, and to make certain they are cooked all the way through, so do yourself a favor and don't choose a pot that will be hard to stir all the ingredients without sauce spurting on your face.  Consider a pot like one you'd boil water for pasta in, or a heavy steel pot with a lid.

In your pot, first pour your 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of oil, or ghee, or butter, whatever you've decided to use, and allow it to get hot by putting your heat to medium/low.

Add roughly chopped onions, garlic and ginger to the oil and cook on medium high until these ingredients become golden brown and most of the excess water has evaporated.  Once the mixture becomes golden brown, add dry spices (ground coriander, ground cumin, tumeric, garam masala and ground chili and salt) and sauté well. 

Transfer this entire onion, ginger & garlic mixture, along with the spices in a food processor or a blender and blend it well. 

Place the mixture back into the heavy pot and add tomatoes, cinnamon stick, bay leaves, 1/2 teaspoon sugar and cashews.  Let this sauce simmer with the tomatoes for about 10 minutes.  Taste this gravy to see if salt & spice level is to your liking.  If it is, it’s time to add our meatballs.  Turn the gravy sauce to low or take off of heat source completely while transferring meatballs. 

Slowly and gently place each meatball into this mixture.  Once all the meatballs are transferred into the malai sauce, try to make sure all meatballs are covered by sauce.  Cover the pot and return to the heat.  Let the meatballs cook on medium heat in this covered mixture for 15-20 minutes.  After 15 minutes, gently and carefully move the meatballs around to make sure they are firm and cooked through.

Turn heat to low.  Add heavy cream and ½ teaspoon garam masala as final preparation for serving.   Stir mixture very gently to coat kofthas, be careful not to break meatballs as part of the allure of this dish are the perfectly round, uniform balls.   

Serve in individual bowls, three meatballs per person topped generously with gravy and sprinkle with coriander leaves and serve with hot homemade rotis or Basmati Rice.