There are a few good reasons the ground meat dish called keema has been beloved on the Indian subcontinent since at least the 15th century, when it even graced the tables of Turkic sultans and later, Mughal emperors. First, it’s a preparation that warms you from the inside out: Spices such as cinnamon, cumin, and cardamom mingle with the meat’s juices, creating a fragrant sauce that coats the supple bits and lightly pools in their nooks and crannies. It’s also quick to make and highly versatile: Serve it alongside rice, rolled into rotis, or stuffed into vegetables. Spread it between two halves of a plush roll and you’ve got keema pav, sold in Irani cafes all over the subcontinent. No wonder that keema shows up in so many seminal works on classic Indian cookery, including those penned by Madhur Jaffrey and Julie Sahni, or that New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao recently put it on her list of recipes that exemplify Indian home cooking.
It’s also a dish that changes depending on who’s doing the cooking. “If you say ‘keema,’ everyone will have a recipe, and every recipe will be different,” noted my friend Saarah Taher, who grew up eating keema in central India and makes the preparation regularly for her husband and children in Southern California. Within families, those differences sometimes play out like a game of telephone. “I cobbled together my recipe based on what I saw my grandma make and what I saw my mom make,” my colleague Rachel Schowalter, whose family is from Mangalore, told me. “I have my uncle’s recipe, too. We all do different things.”
Bump Up Complexity with Whole and Ground Spices
The particular spices you choose for keema—and how you incorporate them into the dish—can lend this preparation extra nuance and depth. I included many of the warm varieties often found in a garam masala (cinnamon, black pepper, cumin, coriander, and both green and black cardamom) and used whole versions of most and ground versions of cumin and coriander.
I added the whole spices to the pan first, blooming them in oil so that their oil-soluble compounds would infuse the fat and their water-soluble compounds could be extracted over the course of cooking. I added my ground spices—cumin and coriander as well as turmeric and Kashmiri chile powder—toward the end of cooking so that they would retain their vibrancy. The result: a spice-infused dish full of high and low flavor notes.
Picking and Choosing
My first decision for my own keema was the type of meat (“keema” comes from the Turkic word for “minced” and can refer to any meat that gets this treatment). Goat tends to be the default on the subcontinent (where it’s called “mutton,” whether from a kid or an older animal), but beef is popular abroad, and I chose that for its wider availability. Though cooks in India often buy meat freshly ground to order from a butcher, good-quality preground is perfectly acceptable. But how fatty should it be? While traditionalists want a slick of red-tinted grease to cling to the mince, I liked the lushness of versions that add yogurt. Since the dairy would provide plenty of richness, I followed the advice of such recipes and settled on 90 percent lean ground beef.
As with much of Indian cooking, spices are the soul of keema—and in a meat dish with roots in Persian cooking like this one, that often means garam masala. This iconic blend can vary in the number and proportion of spices, but they tend to be drawn from the same 10 or so warm varieties (“garam” translates as “warming” in Hindi). I was excited to assemble my own roster of spices from among the most commonly used ones and then figure out how best to incorporate them. Both these things can make a dish that “distinctly special creation of the individual cook,” as Sahni puts it so nicely in Classic Indian Cooking (1980).
First on the list was black cardamom. This spice is a powerhouse of smoky flavor, and I loved the depth it brought to keemas that included it (for more information, see “Cooking with the Cardamoms”). I also singled out green cardamom for its menthol notes, cinnamon for sweetness, and black pepper for piney heat, along with earthy cumin and lemony coriander. Plus, I rounded up two other spices typically found in keema: nutty turmeric and mildly spicy Kashmiri chile powder, both of which lend color to the dish.
In many recipes, ground spices are added to the meat late in the process to preserve more of their volatile compounds. But in the keemas that tasted notably more complex—including Taher’s, which she kindly shared with me—a few whole spices also get bloomed in oil at the start of cooking, which allows their oil‑soluble compounds to infuse the fat and permeate both the meat and the sauce. “You don’t have to use both [whole and ground],” Taher noted, “but using them together . . . brings out the spice profile more intensely.”
Brown Your Onions Just So
Browned onions add to keema’s complexity, but stop cooking while they still have some texture and before they get jammy, so their flavors will be more savory than sweet. Browning the meat isn’t as important—the spices and onions do most of the work in this highly seasoned dish.
Patience Is a Virtue
I singled out the most potent spices—the peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, and both types of cardamom pods—to use whole, and I gently bloomed them in a little vegetable oil in a medium saucepan. When they began to smell fragrant, I added thinly sliced red onion. Now I made sure to follow another critical piece of advice from the best recipes in my research: I took my time with the onions, cooking them slowly until they turned golden brown and softened but still retained a little bite—unlike with caramelizing onions, you don’t want them to collapse completely and turn jammy and sweet. Once I got them to this point, which took about 10 minutes, I stirred in same-size dabs of grated garlic and ginger, fried these briefly, and then added the ground beef and salt. After another 10 minutes, much of the moisture from the meat had evaporated and enough of it had browned to deepen the dish’s savory flavor. I then sprinkled in my ground spices—the cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chile powder.
I was at another crossroads. Should I add tomatoes to lend the mixture a little brightness? Recipes that say yes don’t often incorporate yogurt at the same time. I decided to try using both anyway, stirring in two chopped tomatoes with ¼ cup of yogurt and a halved green chile for some fresh grassy heat. And I was glad I had: The tomatoes broke down and mingled with the dairy into a velvety sauce with a nice hint of tang. For a consistency just moist enough for naan or roti swooping across a plate to get a good grip on the mince, I simmered the dish for about 15 minutes.
And just like that, my keema was everything I’d hoped it would be: ultratender, lush with sauce, and infused with all the warm spices I’d so carefully chosen. I was inspired to create two common variations—keema aloo (with potatoes) and keema matar (with peas)—which took barely any extra time and gave me two more good reasons to make this supremely satisfying dish.
Special thanks to Shekhar Deshpande, professor of media and communication at Arcadia University; Sameera Khan, a Mumbai-based independent journalist; my ATK colleague Kaumudi Marathe, author of the Essential Marathi Cookbook; and Tanu Sankalia, associate professor of urban studies at the University of San Francisco for the background information each provided for this story and my recipes.