The Story of Butter Chicken
This is my first official blog post on Commune Kitchen, and a hundred different topics come to mind. However, I decided to write about "Butter Chicken" - the most popular chicken curry in the world and the dish that made me what I am today.
Unlike most traditional Indian dishes namely biryani, rogan josh, korma etc., which have been been passed down by Indian culinary chefs for generations, Butter Chicken is a relatively modern dish. In fact, the chefs at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi, where the dish first appeared in the 1950's, happened to create it accidentally by cooking leftover tandoori chicken in a spiced tomato and butter sauce. The original name of the dish is "Murg Makhani" which literally means chicken cooked in a butter-rich sauce. The name butter chicken is merely the English translation and rather misleading; I have had many a clients ask me how many grams of butter I add to my butter chicken. The answer and good news is merely a few tablespoons from start to finish :)
Where did it originate?
Butter Chicken is a celebration dish. Growing up, we only ever had it once in a while when we went out for a meal and occasionally at weddings. I don't remember my mother ever making it at home - it was just not a part of home-cooked Indian meals. Being the keen chef that I was and still am, I often tried replicating restaurant dishes at home and mind you, this was at a time when Google was very new and we barely had access to online recipes. Up until my trip to Punjab, I only ever added four main ingredients to my Butter Chicken sauce: garlic, cashews, canned tomatoes and cream.
In 2008, our family decided to go on a road trip through Punjab. My two children were quite young at that time and having never lived in India, always ended up sick during our trips there. Before the trip, we were constantly reminded not to feed them anything raw and to give them only sealed bottled water, rules we strictly abided by. However, being on a road trip meant we only ever ate at small restaurants by the road (literally shacks), with live chickens running in the vicinity. These restaurants are commonly known as "Dhabbas" and are regular hangouts for on-the-road truck drivers in Northern India.
While on the road, we had every single one of our meals at a different Dhabba, apart from the hotels we resided in. And believe me, the trip was truly life-changing. There were no proper menus, but merely a black board inscribing a few dishes on in chalk, namely Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken, Dal Makhani, and Naan. And that is what we had - the same four dishes for every meal. The butter chicken wasn't tangy or sweet like it is in most Indian restaurants around the world. Instead, it was rich and luxurious with sweetness from caramelized onions and cashews and fresh plum tomatoes from a nearby farm. It was enlightening! Oh... did I mention that my children were completely fit and healthy during that the entire trip.
After that, I changed my recipe completely and "authentic" Punjabi Butter Chicken became a weekly ritual in our house in Hong Kong. My children looked forward to Wednesday evenings when I served it for dinner. This one time, I went a little overboard, mixed some leftover sauce with pasta, and packed it for the kids' lunch. I thought they'd love me for it forever, instead they both came back from school quite upset that evening. Turns out they had had a little discussion just after lunch, expressing their unhappiness over me trying to spoil both pasta and their favorite curry for them ;) We still talk about it to this date.
After my move to Shanghai in 2012 and starting cooking classes, it was one of the first dishes I taught to fellow American expats from my first kitchen. One of my students recommended both my classes and butter chicken in particular to a well-known expat businessman and supermarket owner. Luckily, he had just started a new online retail supermarket, and I went immediately on board with a few of my dishes in their frozen cooked-food selection. That is where my culinary journey in the food industry started. During my five years working for them, butter chicken was the most popular item on our menu, and a class I repeated at the cooking school almost weekly. The dish later also became the "cover-girl" of my cookbook "Curries for the Soul".
Can you make fabulous butter chicken at home?
Yes absolutely! Making this beautiful dish isn't difficult, just a little time-consuming. You start with the base of the dish - Tandoori Chicken, which makes a great appetizer and a fantastic addition to your barbecue. Raw chicken is first marinated in a mix of yogurt, ginger, garlic, fresh chilies, and quality ground spices like cumin, turmeric, chili, salt, and garam masala. It is then refrigerate overnight or for up to 48 hours. The marinated chicken is then oven-roasted on metal skewers in a clay oven called a tandoor which adds a smokey flavor (home cooks can simply pan-fry the chicken in butter).
The tandoori chicken is then slowly simmered in a creamy sauce made with caramelized red onions, fresh tomatoes, ground cashews and cream. No matter what you do, don't skip the final garnish of butter, and more importantly "Kasuri Methi". Kasuri Methi (dried fenugreek leaves) is a very common garnish in northern Indian cooking, and really the essence of this dish. These are easily found in the dried spices isle in most Indian supermarkets. Always store kasuri methi in the freezer to keep it extra-dry and crush the dried leaves into a powder using your fingers, before adding it as a garnish. Some chefs even add a light grind of nutmeg to the final dish - I go with ground green cardamoms instead.
Below is the link to my Butter Chicken recipe and youtube video. Don't be intimidated by the number of steps in this recipe - try it and I promise, you are going to be very proud of the result. Leftover butter chicken can be frozen in tubs or ziplock bags, for up to 3 months. To reheat, simply thaw it in the refrigerator and reheat before serving.
Where do I find good butter chicken in Singapore?
If your take-away butter chicken consists of bright red chunks of chicken swimming in an even brighter vermillion sauce, stay away from it because it's drenched in red food coloring. Good tandoori chicken should be either slightly orange (from kashmiri chili powder) or tinted yellow (from turmeric) and cooked in a lightly colored tomato sauce. In Singapore, other than my own home I only ever eat this dish at "Mustard" on Race Course Road, Little India. It's a small family-owned restaurant with merely 8 tables, and they claim to make everything from scratch. Do remember to reserve a table before you go there and be patient while waiting for your order - good Indian food needs time to cook :) Happy eating!
Payal Thakurani is a cooking instructor, consulting chef, and author of the popular Southeast Asian cookbook “Curries for the Soul”. Originally based in Shanghai China, chef Payal has been in the food industry since 2012, working in training and brand development in central kitchens. She was also the proud owner of a cooking school and several food brands in Shanghai. She now lives in Singapore and heads Commune Kitchen in Downtown Gallery, where she hosts affordable, hands-on cooking classes for all ages.
Payal's cookbook 'Curries for the Soul' contains over 100 tried and tested recipes from her kitchen. These include recipes that she grew up with, and many more that she learnt during her travels in Asia. Click here to order Payal’s cookbook in Singapore.