I I remember my first taste of butter chicken. I must be about 10 years old. My cousins used to marinate a whole chicken from their farm in yoghurt, spices, ginger, garlic and chilies, before cooking it over an open fire: not everyone owns a tandoor.
Everything they used was from their land: sweet and savory tomatoes, homemade yoghurt, white makhen (dipped butter). It was an experience—and a lovely dish—that, throughout the long train ride home after their visit, I pestered my mother to prepare it for us back home. However, those subtle spices, and smoky flavor from cooking over an open fire, are impossible for me to replicate, just yet.
My understanding of regional food came partly from summer vacation, partly from the fact that my father worked in a steel mill. Here, he would work alongside others from all over India — and at school, my friends and I would eagerly study each other’s tiffin boxes, eager to see what exciting regional dishes we’d be able to share with each other that day.
Every mouthful of butter chicken taught me how one dish can vary so much. The spices are generally the same, but the techniques and methods used to make them differ greatly.
With tomatoes seasoned with a sweet spice and a creamy gravy, butter chicken is a comforting, warm dish that feels decadent thanks to its silky-smooth richness. It is a dish that can be cooked with either breast meat or chicken thighs, with or without bones. The most important thing is to marinate the chicken completely so that the flavor of the seasoning shines through. For a truly authentic experience, enjoy it with crispy naan, just tender in the middle, and a side of sliced onion.
When I was a little girl, butter chicken was only for special occasions. Money was tight and eating out was a luxury afforded to family vacations. My mom used to make her own version at home, but instead of cream, she used a mixture of milk and yogurt. Only when I traveled with my family to Punjab during the school holidays, I was able to enjoy the different and wonderful taste and flavors of Butter Chicken.
Since then, it’s a dish I’ve liked. If done well, with or without the bone (I prefer the latter), it can be an incredibly smoky, succulent, and satisfying creation.
My oldest daughter, Rhett, was only six months old when she first tasted butter chicken. I dined at a wedding in India, she sat on my lap and snatched a piece of chicken from my plate. Immediately, I cried out for more.
Since then, I’ve been making it for her – and later her younger sister Neff – at home. While she was still in elementary school, Nev would come to my restaurant with her friends, and I already knew that every time I had to make them the same dish: Butter Chicken with Naan and Katchomber Salad.
Since it’s a favorite, she taught them how to make this dish themselves. They understand that seasoning is key—and that the sauce can be made ahead and frozen if they get on the job. Before she left the house, I taught Ritt how to “cheat” with tomato puree to help her save time and money.
I started taking a closer look at butter chicken—its history and the variety of ways it can be prepared—when I started my home business. It was around this time that Chef Manjit Gill took me to the first ever Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, co-founded by three friends from Peshwar (now Pakistan) who fled to this neighborhood of Delhi after the Partition of India in 1947. Here, they created Butter Chicken, as well Dal Makhani – Black lentils with a creamy makhani base.
Butter chicken has grown and grown in popularity, leading to it being copied by chefs across India, each creating their own version. During a recent visit to Punjab, I traveled to many parts of the region with my father and friend, Ritu, to try different versions of it. My dad has always been a lover of good food, and I have fond memories of him grinding spices in our kitchen to make the concoctions my mom used to cook. He loves joining me on trips like this – and I think he’s still in awe of the fact that I cook and write about food for a living!
I must say, the worst butter chicken I ate was during that visit to Punjab. At each of the 10 places I tried, all I could taste was cream – and in some places, bits of chopped onion. When a region is famous for a particular dish, unfortunately many companies stand out to take advantage of it, without focusing on doing it well.
With the help of another friend, Reetika, her brother, Anmol, and his cousin, we went in search of the ultimate butter chicken in Delhi. I found it at Moti Mahal in Greater Kailash. The building is beautiful. It still has its old original doors and interior decoration. Butter chicken is as it should be – smoky, creamy and not too sweet or tangy, perfect balance of flavours. I was enjoying butter chicken along with hot plain naan and pickled leeks, I felt like I was in that scene When Harry met Sally…
The main problem with replicating this lovely dish in England is the ingredients. Although the spices are easy to come by, the texture and taste of our tomatoes simply do not compare with those from Punjab. However, here is my favorite recipe for when I make butter chicken at home.
Personally, I’ve always made butter chicken without onions, but on the trail of butter chicken lately, I’ve found places where onions are added to the gravy. Like anything else, food evolves and changes, based on region and personal taste. Follow your heart and cook it the way you like it.
This recipe is one of the chefs that Jill taught me. It’s popular with Punjabi truck drivers, who stop at dhabas (roadside restaurants) and it’s the one I use for fundraising events at home. Chef Jill made me understand that slow cooking butter chicken in large pots makes it taste so much better – and gives it a creamier texture.
For me, serving butter chicken in my restaurant (it was one of my most popular dishes) allowed me to take people back to my roots—to savor the food I grew up eating. It’s one of those recipes that always fills me with nostalgia, hope, love, strength and knowledge every step of my career. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
For the seasoning:
Boneless chicken breast 1 kg, cubed (4-5 cm cubes)
Greek yogurt 70 grams
Ginger 15 grams, grated
garlic 3 large cloves, grated
Garam masala 1 tsp
tandoori masala 1 tsp
cumin powder 1 tsp
coriander powder 1 tsp
Kashmiri red chilli powder 2 tsp
salt 1 tsp
Lemon ½ juice
To prepare the sauce:
Unsalted butter 50 gr
Ginger 20 grams, coarsely chopped
garlic 4 large cloves, coarsely chopped
Tomatoes 750 gm, coarsely chopped
Garam masala 1 tsp
tandoori masala 1 tsp
coriander powder 1 tsp
Kashmiri red chilli powder 1 tsp
salt 1 tsp
Sugar 1 tsp
Double cream 100ml, plus extra to drizzle when applying
Water 400 ml
Methi (dried fenugreek) leaves 2 tsp
Green cardamom seeds 6-8, powder
Mix all of the dressing ingredients together in a bowl until well combined. Add the chicken, coat the pieces in the marinade, then cover with cling film and refrigerate overnight. When you are ready to cook, preheat the oven to 200°C / gas mark 6. Place the marinated chicken on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes, until the meat is tender and cooked through.
To prepare the sauce, heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes over medium heat. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook until tender, about 8 minutes. Add the cashews, allspice, chili powder, salt and sugar and stir for another 4 minutes. Remove from the fire. Leave to cool, add the sauce to the blender and blend until smooth. Pour it back into the pot, add the cream, water, methi and ground cardamom seeds. Heat for 10 minutes over low heat in a covered skillet. Add the cooked chicken, stir and cook for another 12 minutes. Enjoy eating.
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