03 March 2008

Hatful of butter chicken

Inspiration arrives in various and unexpected forms. But I must admit, I scratched my head at it's latest chariot.

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)
Serves 6

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.


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K and S said...

sounds like a very comforting dish!

MyKitchenInHalfCups said...

You really have some great conversations with your mother.
Love the spices and very fond of buttermilk. I'd think this would be wonderful.

Jenny said...

Hmmm interesting.
My family loves butter chicken, but is happy with the from a jar sauce so far. I have ambitions to make my own sometime this year, so was happy to see this. However, aren't there supposed to be toasted, ground cashews in butter chicken?
I may have to try yours anyways, just to see how it goes over with the fussy eaters here in this house.

breadchick said...

Wow, both butter chicken AND The Smiths in the same post. I'm so happy, I'm tapping my alternative foot as I type.

This recipe sounds exactly like my favourite dish at one of the Indian restaurants I used to frequent in Harvard Square. I'm going to have to try it and see if I can make myself home sick.

Meeta K. Wolff said...

Jasmine, we were on the same level you and I! I too made butter chicken this weekend. I love the deep rich color of yours! I add cashews that are powdered in the food mill to the sauce to give it a rich creamy texture and taste.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

This is definitely a recipe I'll add to my must-make list as I learn more about Indian cooking this year. I wish I had a mom who knew about how to create a wonderful masala spice blend -- would save lots of experimenting in my kitchen!

glamah16 said...

I'm smiling at the image of jack fruits falling on your dear mother to explain her height.Yow two are cute. As for this dish ,a must try. Im just starting to explore Indian food.

Gigi said...

I love butter chicken and The Smiths! I'll have to try and make own very soon.

P.S. this was such a lovely post!

Elizabeth said...

Glad to see that you got your butter chicken, Jasmine! Mmm, good idea to add the sourcream mixed with yoghurt!

And your bread looks good too (is it paratha or plain roti?)


Annemarie said...

Yup, those lyrics resonated something visceral with me - can remember the first time I heard the song, just stepping over the threshold into adolescence, and feeling both supremely alone and comforted at the same time. Chicken with tangy yogurt is such a good thing.

Sara said...

That sounds lovely! Good Butter Chicken is an incredible thing.

Madam Chow said...

I've never heard of this dish, but it sounds delicious! Master Chow loves chicken, pretty much anyway I decide to prepare it. I'll have to give this a try.

l.a. said...

okay, total yum. i love it. it looks delicious.

also, i love the note on the smiths. i bought the tape of 'louder than bombs' from a thrift store. and on grey wintry days or the colourful fall ones where the air is crisp and sweet and crying out for a delicious apple tart to be baked, it is my favourite soundtrack. like you, not a harcore fan (how come theyre all pretty geeky?? i guess that whole morrissey thing..)

anyhow, cheers.

Anonymous said...

More chicken. Looks and sounds delicious.


jasmine said...

Hello all

Nice to see people who appreciate good music :)

Elizabeth--I totally forgot about your post! You deserve just as much credit as Morrissey (et al). The bread you see is shop-bought naan.

In my trying to find a recipe...
I've see it with nuts and without. I've seen it with cashews and I've seen it with almonds. I've seen it with ground or powdered nuts and I've seen it with nut butter.

I chose without, creating the creaminess from tomato paste (avoids the little seeds and remnants of skin) and reducing down the gravy...I saw one recipe that recommended helping the texture by blitzing the onions etc...meh...too much work and cleanup...


Ruth Daniels said...

Butter chicken is my all time favorite Indian dish and you are sooooo right, there doesn't seem to be a standard. My daughter and I once decided to do a taste test. We got as far as collecting a bunch of recipes but never actually made the dishes. Now I'll add your's to my pile.

Thanks for sharing.

Deeba PAB said...

Now this is one dish that takes you to another level! YUM!! Love your conversation with Mum...cheers!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jasmine,
I made this last night. Screwed up a couple of times, adding all the marsala in with the marinade, and I forgot to cut up the chicken.
Regardless, a really good meal, and enough left over for lunch today.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I had it with naan from Loblaw's.
I think that the next time I make it, I'll prepare a raita. Mmmm, raita.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and having to buy a litre of buttermilk and only using a bit, I figure I'm going to whip up a big batch of waffles to use the rest.