The surprisingly recent history of butter chicken (and how to make it at home)
Of all the curries you’ll find in Indian restaurants, the king of them all might be butter chicken, a dish that dates back to the 1950s.
As the story goes, just after 1947 — when England’s division of territory into India and Pakistan led to violence and mass displacement in the region — several men fled with their families to Delhi, where they opened a restaurant called Moti Mahal. That restaurant went on to become internationally famous, frequented by celebrities, presidents and world leaders who developed a taste for some of its signature dishes, including what is known globally as butter chicken, or murgh makhani.
As with many famous restaurant dishes, this one was reportedly concocted by chance when a cook used tandoori chicken in a buttery tomato gravy. Cookbook author Anjum Anand shared her recipe for this velvety curry in her new book, “ I Love India: Recipes and Stories from City to Coast, Morning to Midnight, and Past to Present” (Quadrille, $29.99). The original recipe in her book includes seasoning the chicken from scratch, but she suggests using a tandoori paste to save time and effort. She also notes that the sauce has a lot of tomatoes, so depending on how sweet or tart they are, you’ll need to adjust the sugar and salt accordingly. Serve with naan or paratha, another Indian flatbread.
Classic Butter Chicken
For the chicken:
6 skinned, bone-in chicken pieces
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup tandoori paste (store-bought or homemade)
For the sauce:
1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated ginger
8 large garlic cloves
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more if needed, divided
1 bay leaf
2 black cardamom pods
6 green cardamom pods
3/4-inch cinnamon stick
1 1/2 pounds vine tomatoes, blended to a fine purée
3 to 4 small green chilies, stalks removed, pierced with a knife
Salt, to taste
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
2 teaspoons dried fenugreek leaves, finely crushed with your fingers
1 rounded teaspoon garam masala
1/3 cup cream, to taste
Slash each piece of chicken 3 times down to the bone at the thickest parts of the flesh. Place in a bowl and marinate in about half the lemon juice and half the salt for 30 minutes if possible. Coat in the tandoori paste and leave to marinate for as long as possible – preferably overnight, covered in the fridge – but at least for 3 to 4 hours.
Remove the chicken from the fridge 30 minutes or so before cooking. Heat grill to a medium-high heat, or if using the oven, heat the broiler and line a baking sheet with foil.
Place the chicken on the grill and cook, turning often and moving around to prevent burning and hot spots, until cooked through, about 18 minutes, turning often. Or place the chicken on the prepared baking sheet under the broiler, and cook until lightly charred on both sides and cooked through, which will take between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on your broiler.
To make the butter sauce: Blend together the ginger and garlic using a little water to help the blades turn; set aside.
Heat the oil and half the butter in a large nonstick saucepan over a medium-high heat and add the bay leaf and whole spices. Once they have sizzled for 15 seconds, add the ginger and garlic paste and cook until all the moisture has evaporated and the garlic smells cooked and looks grainy. Add the pureed tomatoes and cook down until the resulting paste releases oil, around 20 minutes.
Now you need to brown this paste over a gentle heat, stirring often, until it darkens considerably, 6 to 8 minutes. Add 1 generous cup water, bring to the boil, then pass through a sieve, trying to extract as much liquid and flavor from the tomatoes and spices as you can. Discard the very few, very dry solids. Set the sauce aside.
Cut or peel large chunks off the chicken pieces and reserve with any juices and charring that is still on the cooking foil.
Heat the remaining butter, throw in the green chilies and cook for 1 minute. Add the sauce, salt and a good splash of water and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the chicken, with any juices and charring from the foil. Add the sugar, chili powder, paprika, fenugreek and garam masala. Simmer, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes, adding a little water if it is too thick. It should be lightly creamy. Take off the heat and stir in the cream, then taste and adjust with salt, sugar, cream or butter to taste as you need. Serves 4 to 6.
— From “ I Love India: Recipes and Stories from City to Coast, Morning to Midnight, and Past to Present” by Anjum Anand (Quadrille, $29.99)