I was on a mission to have biriyani but unfortunately a lot of times, life works out the way we didn’t plan it. But I did end up with butter chicken. So the funny thing is that butter chicken was never made in my house but all of my friends expected me to make it magically appear because after our cuisine was done being shunned for being “smelly”, all desi people could now seen as free plates of samosas and chicken tikka masala. (Ignoring again how much north indian cuisine overshadows almost all south asian cuisine) However, regardless of it not being made in my household, it was made by family friends and I would enjoy it a lot. Even going to Delhi or really any corner of India you’ll find murgh makhani as one of the more touted item on menus. If you ever get the chance try kashmiri naan with butter chicken, its a lot of richness and heartburn but so so so worth it.
Chicken tikka and butter chicken are often used interchangeably but they are different dishes with different origins and flavor profiles. Their similarities lie in pieces of chicken from the tandoor (grill) being used in a cream based sauce. Chicken makhani, makhani meaning butter, has origins in Punjab and has a profile that is more creamy, buttery and floral made with usually bone-in thighs. On the other hand, chicken tikka masala is usually made with the boti or boneless breast pieces so we’re switching up things today and made with more spices/tomato paste. There’s many rumors about how once a British cook who was in India tried chicken boti and was disgusted by the dryness and slapped on yogurt and tomato sauce as a way to mock it and viola it became “curry”.
But see, it gets funnier. Across the oceans, another country now boasts chicken tikka as their “national food”..curry/tikka masala, a running joke that somehow is theirs. It actually turns out that a chef from Pakistan had created the dish while being in the UK. So no, curry n chips will never be a thing that europeans made, give credit where it is due! This is the same country that when asked by the Indian delegation to return the jewels and valuables stolen during times of colonialism, rebuked with the excuse that their museums would be empty otherwise. Not only were they not satisfied by the billions in resources and labor that they stripped of south asians, they must claim our food and the rights to represent it. If you have the time, check out exactly how this same snobbery had the British pillaging the world for spices but at the end of the day, lose out on complex flavors in the name of aristocracy.
The Brits and their irrelevance aside, this was one of the first complex dishes I started making with my partner on a whim. Foodies always, we experimented with the spices. I can’t count how many different variations I’ve had and how delicious almost all were. It was an experiment of preferences. As much as people have made fun of me for not having a palette because I use “too many spices”, I’ve realized over the years that layering flavors is a science and the more you understand what each element contributes, the more you can understand the depths you’re playing with. Adding to that, how ingredients react and complement each other also become a building block for the canvas you’re stirring.
Therefore a lot of times when I’m making this dish, I feel like a flavor engineer of sorts. The beauty of this dish is the layers of flavor and the homogeneity of texture that is derived from very unlikely ingredients. Put a bit more cardamom if you want something floral. Less yogurt for less tang. More clove for an astringent background shadow. Perhaps more tomato paste if you’re going for more tikka masala than butter chicken. Don’t worry, as we go along I’ll explain the variations that westernized restaurants make along with how I like my own, that way you can also explore the kind of spice palette that suits yours.
- 1-2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp oil
- 1 pound boneless breast chopped into cubes
- 1 large onion
- 3 medium tomatoes
- 4 cardamom pods
- garlic 1 tbsp
- ginger 1 tbsp
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp coriander
- 2 tsp cumin
- 1/2 tsp pepper
- 1/2 tsp turmeric
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1 tsp garam masala
- 10-12 almonds soaked and peeled (can also sub cashews for creamier texture)
- fenugreek dried leaves crumbled
- 2 tsp salt or to taste
- pinch brown sugar
- 3 tbsp heavy whipping cream
You can follow the tandoori recipe or follow my modified version for when I’m trying to make butter chicken in a smaller timeframe
- 1 tsp corriander
- 1 tsp cumin
- 1 cup hung yogurt/greek yogurt
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/2 tsp chili powder
- 1/2 tsp fenugreek
Prep work: Put your chicken to marinade, best results will be if done a couple hours before hand but can also marinate while you’re preparing the sauce. Start with chopping up your vegetables (onion, tomatoes, coriander ginger, and garlic) and microwaving your almonds/cashews until they are soft and have gotten bigger.
On medium high, start with melting a tablespoon of butter and 2 tsp of oil. The oil will lower the melting rate of the butter and also makes this dish a bit healthier. You can also just use two tablespoons of only butter but be mindful of how quickly it browns ingredients. Throw in your whole spices and enjoy how aromatic your house will be! You can throw in the ginger, garlic, and onion at this point. Let it caramelize.
Lower the heat as the onion mixture starts to caramelize. Put in the potatoes and all spices besides fenugreek. Cover with a lid and let it soften for 5 minutes. The 3rd picture is how it’ll look once the tomatoes and spices have melded together.
Turn the mixture off and let it cool. Shell the almonds if you’re using those and pop into blender. Traditionally, people will use cashews or a mixture of almonds and cashews since they tend to be happier and really echo the buttery theme of this dish. In an effort to make healthful tweaks, I opt for the almonds but having them soaked for long enough is key to achieve the same texture. Spoon the tomato onion mixture as well, pay attention and remove whole spices. Take two of the cardamom pods and shells the seeds into the mixture for that floral punch if you’re a fan, if not let it be.
You can broil your chicken if you’re not using leftover tandoori chicken or saute it. Take half a tablespoon of oil to saute the chicken since the yogurt makes it so you don’t need to use too much fat. I like to use the same pan that I cooked the ingredients of the sauce to catch all the flavor we’ve built up to this point. Cook for about 5 minutes and then add to sauce with about a cup of water.
Let the chicken simmer for another 10 minutes or less depending on how tender you like it, stirring occasionally. Add in salt to taste, sugar, chili, and fenugreek. Simmer for another 2-5 minutes and finish with a garnish of cream and cilantro.
I love pairing some butter chicken with naan, pickled onion and some chilies. Or if I’m feeling like a health nerd, I’ll have it over cauli rice! This time was not that time but we sure enjoyed our late night dinner.