Making a good Indian curry can be a tricky endeavor as there’s a lot of flavors at work, some of which may not be used too frequently in your kitchen. Today’s dish which you may have encountered in restaurants before: butter chicken, a delicious tomato-based curry with a subtle, creamy, buttery taste.
Now I’ve cooked some curries before, but they were always lacking something or were just really unbalanced. I love Indian food, but to me, if there is any cuisine that is hard to dissect from the finished product alone, its a good curry, which is frustrating because I’d love to cook a lot more of it. Furthermore, its not hard to find recipes out there, its just really hard to find ones worth making. So imagine my delight when I just happened to stumble upon a recipe for butter chicken by Alfred Prasad, the head chef at Michelin-starred restaurant Tamarind (note to self: next time in London, book reservations). I thought surely, following the advice of someone with such acclaim will shed some light on things, and you know what? Even though I didn’t entirely adhere to the recipe (e.g. I didn’t have access to all of the ingredients at the time), this dish was the most authentic tasting curry to ever come out of my kitchen and I absolutely loved it. Many curries tend to be plagued by pools of oil and are just really heavy, even to the point where every curry (whether its a vindaloo, butter, or masala) tastes nearly identical. This one tasted fresh, authentic, and light, and I would without a doubt make this one again. This was fantastic and I had to share this treasure of a find.
I learned a lot of lessons from preparing this dish (e.g. using finely ground cashews/almonds and honey to add body to the sauce) and I intend to apply them to some of my own ideas in the future. I was also very resolved to find an Indian grocery so that I would finally have the spices that I could never seem to find in the past (such as tamarind, fenugreek, and curry leaves) because substitutions can only do so much (and lucky for me, I found one! So many new things to experiment with… 😀 ).
Now if you’ve never had butter chicken before, before you put all of the time into this dish (its not a quicky, unfortunately), you might want to eat out at an Indian restaurant first. That way, you’ll know if you think you’ll like it and you’ll also appreciate how awesome this dish can be. 😉 I’d also be glad to hear any tips from my readers out there who have some secrets of their own when it comes to Indian cooking.
- Chicken Tikka:
- 1.5-2 lbs chicken thighs (boneless weight)
- 1/8 cup ginger paste
- 1/8 cup garlic paste
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup plain yogurt
- 1/2 Tbsp chilli powder (adjust to taste, as is will give medium heat)
- 1.5 Tbsp vegetable oil
- Vegetable oil
- small piece of fresh ginger (about the size of a finger)
- 5-7 peppers (thiner and hotter is better, but jalapeños will do)
- 9-12 on-the-vine tomatoes
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 5 cardamom pods/1 tsp ground cardamom
- 5 cloves
- 3 Bay leaves
- 1/2 tsp chilli powder (adjust to taste, as is will give medium heat)
- 1/4 cup heavy whipping cream
- 1 Tbsp honey
- 1 Tbsp tomato paste
- 2 tsp ground dried fenugreek / 1 tsp cumin
- 1/4 cup of butter
- 3/8 cup of cashews
The first step to most Indian curries is to make a fairly simple, but flavorful chicken with no sauce, commonly called “chicken tikka,” which traditionally, means spiced and yogurt marinated chicken cooked on skewers in a tandoor, which is a clay oven. So this is where we begin (just without the skewers or the clay oven 😉 ).
Depending on how you were able to purchase your chicken thighs, you might have a good bit of cleaning to do. If so, trim off any excess fat and debone, not worrying about cutting the meat down into small pieces–that will come later. Next, rub your chicken pieces with salt, ginger paste, and garlic paste, doing your best to spread and rub it fairly evenly with you hands.
In a separate bowl, mix the yogurt, chili powder, and some of the vegetable oil. Then, add in the chicken, toss to coat all of the pieces well, and incorporate the remaining oil, tossing a little more. If this were Top Chef, this would be one of those “Glad family of products” moments as you should now transfer all of this into a sealed container in the fridge to marinate for several hours (I did it overnight).
So now we need to cook the chicken tikka. I put the entire marinade-chicken mixture into a roasting pan and put it under the broiler for 15-20 minutes on 450?F. Keep an eye on it–you want the chicken to cook through and brown a little on top, not turn into a lump of coal. This will also render the fat out of the chicken, which is a good thing. Remove this from the oven, let it cool for a moment, and chop the pieces smaller now (bite-sized) and return them to the fridge again. You chop the chicken now rather than earlier so that the oven time doesn’t dry the chicken out.
Now, on to the biggest part of this dish: the sauce.
Skin and finely dice up your of fresh ginger. In a large saucepan, get some vegetable oil on medium-high heat and then add in the cinnammon sticks, cardamom, cloves, and bay leaves. After a minute or two, add in your diced ginger. Another minute later, toss in the peppers (I left them whole, but took off the caps). Keep stirring this around a bit, and a minute or two later, add in your tomatoes. Keep things moving in that oil.
At this point, I was rather concerned as it looked like a lot of tomatoes, but it all works out in the end. Lower the heat to medium, add in about 1/8 cup of water, and keep things covered and simmering for about 30 minutes.
While your waiting for the tomatoes to finish simmering, now’s a good time to prepare for the rest of the sauce by getting all of the upcoming ingredients out and available (also a good time to concern yourself with a side dish). Take 1/4 cup of cashews (so that’s 2/3 of your cashews) and a small bit of water and mash this down into a paste using your food processor. Set this aside.
Once done simmering, fish out the whole spices swimming around in there (e.g. the cloves, bay leaves, etc). Then, pour this hot mixture into your food processor and puree the sauce as finely as you can. Put a strainer on top of your original sauce pan and pour the contents of the food processor into the strainer while the stovetop heat is still on medium. If you can press down on this with a bowl to speed things along, go for it, or, if you need to work the food processor some more in smaller batches–whatever. You might also consider pouring a little bit of water over the straining mixture just to help keep things moving through. Once the majority of your sauce has strained through, heat this back up to a boil. A good thing to do after this whole process is to clean up some of the tomato sauce that you have inevitably splashed everywhere, not that I would know anything about this.
A good thing to do at this point: sample your sauce. At this point, the sauce is just….not so good and so you might ask yourself some of life’s serious questions: religion, life goals, relationships, and whether or not this dish is worth the effort and if its going to come out tasting any good. Things are pretty acidic and not so strong, but hang in there, this is where the magic happens. Once your back to boiling, add in the tomato paste, chili powder, cashew paste, honey, butter, salt, and fenugreek (or if you couldn’t find any, like me, a dash of cumin) to the sauce. Stir this all together and let it simmer for a few minutes. Now sample that sauce again–amazing what that small addition can do! Order has been restored to the world and life is good again–cashew and honey have saved the day.
The end is near! Get your chicken tikka out of the fridge and grab the rest of your cashews. Coarsely chop them up and get a good sized knob of butter (like 1/4 cup) melting in a deep sautee pan on medium-high heat. Throw your chopped cashews in there as well as your chicken. Fry all of this for no more than five minutes to give your dish that delicious buttery taste.
Finally, bring it all together. Carefully (after all, it is still hot and bubbling) pour your sauce into the chicken pan and stir. Pour in your cream and mix this all well. Turn the heat down to low, and let things simmer together for about five minutes.
Serve a good amount of chicken with some extra curry on your plate. I served mine with lime rice and yogurt rice as well as an attempt at poori (mine didn’t poof up, so it was naturally camera-shy ).