Butter chicken (Murgh Makhani) is an incredible Indian dish disguised by its common name.
Two months ago I wrote a post about General Tso’s chicken, a genuinely Chinese-American cuisine that swept across the world with its unique sweet, sour, spicy and crispy combination.
Indian butter chicken is the Indian version, which is equally renowned and savors by gastronomes worldwide.
I served butter chicken to my customers in my cafe early this month, and the reception was phenomenal.
The positive result drives me to dig deeper into other Asian crossover cuisines famous outside of Asia, and glad to share my butter chicken recipe with you.
Why is the humble leftover chicken rose to international stardom?
Butter chicken is on the menu of every Indian restaurant in Delhi, London, New York, Melbourne and everywhere in between. I thought butter chicken must be a great cross-continent dish well accepted by almost every palate.
However, when I mentioned to my son living in Australia, he was squeamish about butter chicken. When I tried the store that he mentioned adjacent to his apartment, I can understand why he said so. It was not great. Perhaps he did not find the best Indian restaurant hidden at the back of the alley.
But there must be a reason why it started from its humble beginnings and rose to universal acclaim.
I want to seek justice to this dish, and debunk the idea that it is an ordinary meal. So I have embarked on a journey of discovery, researching and formulating the best quality butter chicken. My recipe will be an easy one, with only using a saucepan or a heavy skillet. NO oven and grill are required.
What really is butter chicken?
In the basic form, butter chicken is the tandoori chicken (sometimes can even be the leftover) cooked in a curry. However, it can also be wildly luxurious, serving with biryani rice, mango chutney, pappadums, and naan. The chicken is usually on-bone, marinated with turmeric, garam masala, cumin, lemon juice and yogurt, and cooked with a velvety red bath comprising tomatoes, cream, and butter.
Another Indian dish called chicken tikka masala shares some similarity with butter chicken. Something’s people may get confused between these modern westernized Indian food. Chicken tikka masala is cooked with a mixture of blended tomato, onion without butter, and was created by an Indian restaurant in Britain. On the other hand, butter chicken is authentically Indian, created by a chef in Delhi.
An interesting history about how butter chicken was invented
Butter chicken was invented by the owner of the Moti Mahal restaurant, Kundan Lal Gujral in Delhi sometime in the 1950’s.
Kundan Lai did not want to waste the marinade and the leftover tandoori chicken. So he added some butter, tomatoes, and cream to prepare a stew with the chicken. He might not even have the faintest idea that this accidental concoction has evolved to become one of the most recognizable Indian cuisines around the world.
It is an irrefutable truth that some remarkable delicacy was discovered by accident. The similar story also happened to the great Chinese braised pork belly ( Dong Po Meat) which was said to be an accidental creation.
If you have not tried butter chicken before, don’t believe in me. Tasting is believing. Follow the recipe below and watch the video. Plan for your Indian feast this weekend with butter chicken, a pot of biryani rice, serve with diced onion, tomatoes, cilantro, mango chutney pappadums and naans.
Watch the butter chicken video demonstration (8.20 minutes)
The best butter chicken recipe
Here is my version of the butter chicken recipe. I have to make a point to make it simple. What you need is a saucepan. No fancy tandoor or oven is required.
- 80g of plain yogurt
- 2 teaspoons (10ml ) of lemon juice
- 1 ½ teaspoons of ground turmeric
- 2 teaspoons of garam masala
- 2 teaspoons of ground cumin
- 500g of chicken thighs, bone-on, cut into large chunks
- 1 tablespoon(15ml) of vegetable oil
- 80g of onions, peeled and diced
- 1 teaspoon of minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon of minced ginger
- ½ teaspoon of ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon
- 2 medium-size tomatoes, diced
- 1 red chiles and 1 green chili, seeded and diced
- 2 teaspoons (10g) of salt
- 100ml of water
- 2 tablespoon (30ml) of vegetable oil for frying the chicken
- 35g of unsalted butter
- 50ml of water
- 100ml of cream
- 1 teaspoons (5g) of tomato paste
- 3 finely chopped cashew nuts
- Cilantro leaves for garnish
- Mix the chicken, yogurt, lemon juice, turmeric, garam masala and cumin in a large bowl. Cover, and refrigerate overnight.
- Add some vegetable into a saucepan. Fry the chicken over low heat until it starts to turn brown on the surface. Be careful not to burn the yogurt and spices because we want to deglaze the pan with water later.
- Remove the chicken from the pan.
- Add the onions, minced garlic, minced ginger, ground cumin, ground cinnamon diced tomato, cashew nuts, salt, and chilies. Saute for a minute. Add the water to deglaze any remaining spices that stick to the pan.
- Pour the mixtures of ingredients in the pan into a blender. Blend the mixture until it becomes a smooth gravy.
- A put the unsalted butter in a saucepan. Add the blended ingredients back to the pan.
- Add the browned chicken and any remaining marinade to the pan.
- Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for approximately 20 minutes.
- Stir in the cream and tomato paste,
- Garnish with the cilantro leaves.
9 Useful tips to cook the best butter chicken
- Traditional butter chicken is prepared with leftover tandoori chicken. The chef cuts the tandoori chicken into small pieces with bone on. Every part of the chicken will be used. Since we do not have any tandoori chicken to start with, we need to recreate the chicken which mimics how the tandoori chicken. Therefore, we marinate the chicken just like making tandoori chicken, but we have the option to make in with just chicken meat or with bone-on. Both are acceptable.
- Marinated the chicken overnight is necessary as it will make the chicken tender and soft. It also let the flavor of the garam masala and yogurt penetrate deep into the chicken meat, so the flavor will not be lost into the gravy during cooking.
- Cooking the chicken on the bone give a depth of flavor you cannot get any other way. However, you can choose to use only chicken meat if you do not like to eat chicken on the bone.
- The chicken browned in the pan will give an additional aroma. It also prevents the chicken from releasing too ouch water into the gravy. If you put the raw chicken into the gravy, the chicken will ooze out a lot of water, and the flavor of the dish will change significantly.
- Keep scraping and moving the chicken pieces in the pan while frying the chicken tend to stick to the pan due to the yogurt. Fry at low heat so that the spice and yogurt will not burn. We want to preserve the browned spices and flavor left in the pan after frying the chicken. Deglaze the open, and it will add flavor to the final dish.
- The sauce must be blended to produce a silky smooth sauce.
- Different brand of garam masala tastes differently. You may want to make your own if you are interested. (Recipe below)
- If you use canned tomatoes, reduce the amount as stated in the recipe as it has less content compare to fresh tomatoes.
- Garnish with a dash of cream and fresh cilantro.
A word about Garam Masala
You will find the word garam masala repeatedly appear in different Indian recipes. Indeed, I use garam masala in the butter chicken recipe with no exception.
You may want to buy the ready made garam masala or make your own if you are a fan of Indian cuisine. Garam masala is suitable for a broad range of Indian cuisine, which includes the butter chicken recipe in this post.
Garam गरम is a Hindi word means hot, and masala मसाला means spices. It is a mixture of ground spices that give you a warm feeling after consuming it.
The common ingredients in garam masala are cinnamon, cardamom pods, cloves, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, black peppercorns, and nutmeg. The composition differs regionally and according to personal taste.
The spices are tossed lightly and the ground into fine powder.
You can follow this recipe if you want to make your own:
Garam Masala Recipe
1 stick of cinnamon (5cm, about 5g)
10 green cardamom pods, removed the outer husk
5 star-point of star anise
1 teaspoon (4g) of cloves
1 tablespoon (12g) of black peppercorns
2 tablespoons (20g) of coriander seeds
1 tablespoons (10g) of cumin seeds
1 teaspoon (4g) of fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon (2g) of ground nutmeg
1. Heat up a heavy skillet over medium heat. Place all the ingredients except the ground nutmeg in it. Lightly toast the spices for two minutes until they become aromatic.
2. Wait until the spices cool down. Transfer them to a grinder together with the ground nutmeg. Grind them until it turns into a fine powder.
Garam masala can be stored up to six months in an airtight container, away from light. The flavor of the spices will lose over time. Therefore you should make garam masala in small batches.
You can use it in this butter chicken recipe, or the chicken tikka masala recipe I posted earlier. You can also use it in other curry dish, soups or even scrambled eggs.
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