Some dishes are so tasty that, no matter the region of origin, they become ubiquitous around the world as a takeaway go-to, as inspiration for restaurant chefs both traditional and gourmet, and as an aspirational recipe for home cooks. Case in point: butter chicken.
A Brief History
Butter chicken dates back to 1950s Delhi, India and a restaurant called Moti Mahal, now an international franchise. As the story goes chefs there took to marinating chicken in the leftover butter and tomato juices of other dishes and then cooking it in a tandoor. They wound up with a richly spiced sauce and tender chunks of chicken that resemble another famous Hindi dish called Chicken Tikka Masala. However, butter chicken curry, also called murgh makhani or makhan murg, is a bit more decadent and calorific. Hence its popularity with Western palates.
As a result of this near universal appeal, most contemporary celebrity chefs have a version of butter chicken in their repertoires. For Saransh Goila, the winner of Masterchef Australia 2018, its become a calling card of sorts and he is known internationally as the Butter Chicken Guy. UK celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey does a version (as one would expect from chef in a country that is crazy for Indian food across cultural and class lines). As does food blogger Urvashi Pitre, whose recipe for Instant Pot Keto Butter Chicken went viral in 2018.
How to Prepare Butter Chicken
As with most Indian cooking, making butter chicken from scratch can involve many ingredients and many preparation steps. But no special equipment is required. This basic recipe from cafedelites.com is a good example.
The precise mixture of spices for the chicken marinade and the sauce may vary from kitchen to kitchen, but the list of basic ingredients will always include crushed tomatoes, onion, garlic, ginger, ghee (clarified butter), yogurt and cream. Anyone who has attempted Indian cooking recipes will be familiar with the list of specialty spices, which includes garam masala, fenugreek, cumin and tumeric.
Technically, the recipe is not challenging if the correct order of cooking, blending and re-blending the various ingredients is respected. The trickiest part may be finding the time to allow the chicken to marinate fully (the longer the better). Other pro tips include cooking most of the liquid out of the tomatoes before taking the mixture off the heat and sieving the final sauce to make it velvety-smooth.
Butter chicken is traditionally served with basmati rice and naan flatbread (which can be made from scratch but also can be found in most grocery stores these days).
Home-made butter chicken also stores well and is even tastier as a leftover the next day. You can also simply make and jar the sauce to use later.
Most variations of butter chicken in the modern era aim to offset the richness of the dish. And each kitchen, whether professional or amateur, will produce its own unique butter chicken dish depending on the balance of spices used. That is part of the tradition of Indian cooking.
A variety of recipes are widely available online. Some of those Instant Pot, Keto and Paleoversions are worthy of consideration for those who follow restricted diets, or are looking for a healthier version of butter chicken curry. Substitutions may include swapping out cream for coconut milk or using different spices to generate more or less heat.
Butter chicken is comfort food for millions around the globe regardless of ethnicity or cultural affiliation. It’s just one of those rare dishes that is universally appealing. Especially in these days of strife and agitation that’s got to be a good thing worth celebrating.