Throwback Thursday: Butter Chicken/Murgh Makhani
Over the past seven or more decades, butter chicken has evolved into a classic, and a standout dish in the pantheon of Indian cooking. It is famed for its sweet, buttery tomato flavour and luscious creaminess.
Some insist that butter chicken is the most beloved of all Indian dishes, but that is impossible to quantify. It is certainly among them, especially in the West, and is adored by legions of fans who love its creamy spiciness and beguiling mouthfeel. It is the curry that has everything most of us want in a curry.
In India, the dish is traditionally called murgh makhani, butter chicken being the anglicised name. Even though it is named for the butter it contains, the chief ingredient of butter chicken is in fact tomato, hence its reddish-orange colour.
We have the famed Delhi chef Kundan Lal Gujral to thank for giving butter chicken to the world, but this was not his only gift to Indian cuisine. He also gave us the arguably even more famous tandoori chicken, as well as paneer makhani, which is similar to butter chicken but with the ubiquitous Indian cheese.
Gujral and his friend, Kundan Lal Jaggi, with another friend, Thakur Dass Mago, were refugees from Punjab who, after the Partition of India, left Peshawar and settled in Delhi where they opened Moti Mahal restaurant, where butter chicken was among their specialities. Many sources place the origin of the dish as being this restaurant in the 1950s.
However, these origins are disputed, with one school of thought arguing that butter chicken has its origins as early as the 1920s, long before the Partition. Yet another school of thought believes it to be the Indian version of what Britons call chicken tikka, everybody’s favourite “High Street Indian”, though the recipes for these are not quite the same. Generally, butter chicken is creamier, and tikka is stronger on tomato. So, no, I doubt that it would be wise to presume it to be an English dish in origin.
Butter chicken is usually served with naan bread, whether garlic or coriander naan or both, but is popular eaten with rice too.
Today butter chicken can be found on all sorts of Western dishes, from pizza toppings to pasta sauces, as part of a pulao and even as a pie filling.
(Serves 4, with rice or naan)
175 g double cream plain yoghurt
4 chicken breast fillets, diced
1 Tbsp fresh ginger, when minced
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped or minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 tsp garam masala powder
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp salt
½ cup blanched cashews
For the curry sauce:
1 small white onion, grated
2 Tbsp butter
100 ml tomato puree
100 ml cream
1 heaped tsp sugar
1 tsp each garam masala, ground cumin, ground turmeric, ground coriander
2 tsp raw honey
1 Tbsp chopped coriander (leaves)
1 scant tsp salt
Pour the yoghurt into a bowl and add the garam masala, ginger, garlic, salt, cumin, chilli powder and turmeric. Stir thoroughly and add the diced chicken, coating it well. Let it marinate for an hour, or overnight if you like.
Soak the blanched cashews in hot water. After two hours, drain and blend to a paste.
Preheat the oven to 200°C.
Put a dish suitable for the oven (I used my Le Creuset casserole with its lid) on the stove top and melt the butter in it on a moderate heat. When hot, add the chicken and its marinade and cook, covered, for five minutes.
Mix all the curry sauce ingredients except the butter in a bowl. Add this to the pan with the chicken, stirring to coat.
Put the dish in the preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes. After 30 minutes, take it out and move the chicken pieces about in the marinade to ensure they’re well coated in the sauce. Stir the cashew paste into it before returning the dish to the oven for the remaining 15 minutes.
Serve with naan bread or basmati rice, or both, garnished with coriander. DM
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido.
Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.
This dish is photographed on wares by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.