It's no secret, music can fling me to my kitchen, and urge me to come up with something new or different from my norm. Jann Arden's Cinnamon Buns is such a dish, but in that case, she talked about pastries during the concert.
In no way would or could I call myself a hardcore fan, but every time I hear The Smiths on the radio, the volume mysteriously increases and immediately transports me to a happy place (yes, I am proudly an Alternative fan). But I have no idea why, this time, How Soon Is Now? sent me head first into butter chicken during one of Morrissey's "I am human and I need to be loved/just like everybody else does" ..but it did.
And no, I'm not going to enter into a discourse about shallower and deeper meanings held by its lyrics, though I do think those 14 words ring true to most people at one point or another. I just think it's fairly safe to say it has nothing to to with chicken, curry or chicken curry.
So...I've got a hankering for butter chicken (or murgh makhani)...but I don't know what it's "supposed to" taste like, so I really can't go with taste memory (only what I don't want it to taste like). My Dear Little Mummy doesn't cook it. My forays into trying it have left me unsatisfied: a frozen dinner, and a dump and heat sauce. I could tell what the instafood manufacturers were unsuccessfully trying to do when they created cheap, fast and inoffensive foodstuffs, but when the instructions are to heat the meat and the sauce separately before tossing everything together just before serving, you know you've got something that may as well be Chicken McNuggets dumped in Bollywouldn't sauce.
I called my parents (fyi: jackfruits keep falling on Mum's head, which I'm sure will be her excuse for shrinking in height just that much more) and asked Mum about butter chicken. After a not-so-quick conversation, which centred on her intense dislike of many things dairy I think I began to figure things out.
The first is the yoghurt. Several recipes called for it to marinate the meat, but Western plain yoghurt is creamy and just slightly sweet in comparison to my mother's yoghurt, which is just as thick, but a bit more sour. The taste is closer to fresher buttermilk, crossed with old (but not yet expired) sour cream.
Most recipes I've seen use tandoori chicken and then put it into a sauce, or use a doctored garam masala for the chicken. Well...I know if I have tandoori chicken, I'll probably eat it as is and only have scraps left for the butter chicken...which might as well be called "butter scraps." Garam masala is fine if you can't get the individual spices to come up with your own flavouring...but, the best Indian dishes I've had centre around specially-made masala..and let's face it, I'm feeling creative.
I'm not after "perfectly authentic" because, apart from not having a decent reference point, I don't think there is a right way to make butter chicken. I just wanted something that was slightly sweet, on this side of tangy, and flavourfully spicy. I also wanted to make it something my Mum would eat (she balked at the cream I mentioned, so I've given up the decorative pour). I came up with this dish and I think it's a keeper.
Murgh Makahni (Butter Chicken)
2 Tbsp masala, untoasted and ground finely, made from:
- 2 Tbsp coriander seed
- 1 Dspn (two teaspoons) fenugreek
- 1 tsp black peppercorn
- 1 ¾ tsp chili pepper flakes
- ¼ tsp turmeric
- 2 cloves
- seeds from 1 fat cardamom pod
1kg chicken thighs, skinned and bones removed, cut into bite-sized pieces
250ml sour cream mixed with buttermilk
4Tbsp garlic and ginger paste, divided (see note)
juice of half a lemon
1 globe onion, chopped
unsalted butter and oil, for frying onions
156ml can of tomato paste, mixed with enough water to make one cup
1Tbsp muscavado sugar
a thumb of minced ginger
a handful of chopped coriander leaf
In a zippy bag, mix together the sour cream, half the ground masala, half the ginger and garlic paste, and lemon juice, adding as much salt as you wish. Give it a good squoosh to thoroughly mix the marinade, before adding the chicken. Seal the bag and squoosh again, this time to thoroughly coat the meat. Let marinate for about an hour--but don’t go too much longer otherwise you risk woolly chicken.
Preheat the oven to 150C/300F and bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, then turn off the oven and let the chicken sit in the oven for 10 minutes…which is approximately how long you’ll need to fry the onions. The meat will be partially cooked, which is okay, because you will finish cooking it on the hob.
Over a medium flame, heat the butter and the oil together and fry the onions for about eight or nine minutes, or until the onions are soft and caramelised. Add the remaining garlic and ginger paste and fry for another minute. Tip in the partially cooked meat and any yoghurty liquid that has collected in the pan, followed by the tomato paste and water. Cover and simmer for about five minutes. Stir in the sugar and let blurble away, partially covered until the gravy thickens – about 15 minutes. You aren’t looking for islands of meat in a sea of thickened tomatoey soup but instead chicken that’s swathed in a thick burnished sauce. Adjust seasoning to taste.
While it’s thickening, toast the remaining masala in a dry pan until the essential oils release.
When the chicken is ready, take it off the heat and add the toasted spices, coriander leaf and minced ginger.
- Left over masala can be stored for a few months in an airtight jar.
- If you cannot grind your own spices for this, then substitute 1½ Tbsp garam masala mixed with ¼ tsp cayenne pepper
- Garlic and ginger paste: grate and mix together equal parts garlic and ginger. This can be made in quantity and then frozen in an ice cube tray and kept in the fridge for future use.