Rich with tomatoes, cream and spices, butter chicken was invented at Delhi's
Moti Mahal restaurant, using leftover tandoori chicken, during the 1950's.
His voice was a little plaintive: “I want to ask a favor. Could you post a recipe for butter chicken? You start with tandoori chicken and then cook it in a creamy tomato sauce until it becomes really rich and creamy…It’s my favorite dish.” I was already halfway across the room, headed towards a cache of Indian cookbooks.
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Butter chicken was “invented” at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi in the 1950’s. As Madhur Jaffrey writes in her recent autobiography, Climbing the Mango Trees, this Punjabi restaurant first captivated Delhi diners with the taste of food cooked in “large clay ovens shaped like vats” that were “embedded in the floor.” These were the famous tandoors and they were brought to Delhi and other cities by Hindu refugees fleeing from the Northwest Punjab after the creation of West Pakistan. One family opened the Moti Mahal restaurant where customers feasted on “young, whole-roasted chickens…so tender and moist they could be pulled apart and devoured in seconds.” Butter chicken, or makhani murgh, was made with leftover tandoori chicken, cut into small pieces, and simmered in a rich, creamy sauce of tomatoes, butter and spices.
This recipe is adapted from Julie Sahni’s book, Classic Indian Cooking. You must begin with tandoori chicken—with luck, you can pick it up from a nearby restaurant. If not, you’ll have to make your own—Sahni has a good recipe, or you can use a ready made tandoori mix from any Indian grocery—but that will turn it into a two-day dish. The first day, make the tandoori chicken, either by broiling it in the oven or, for a smokier taste, by cooking it outside on a charcoal grill. Be sure to use very small, young chickens, about 2 pounds—you can buy them frozen, already quartered, at most Indian food markets—since they will readily absorb the delicious flavors of the yoghurt and spice marinade. The second day, you can use the leftovers for Butter Chicken—just as the Moti Mahal chefs did.
Julie Sahni’s Velvet Buttered Chicken
(from a recipe in Classic Indian Cooking)
2 quartered tandoori chickens, about 2 to 2-1/4 pounds each (or 8 legs and breasts of chicken in any combination)
3 cups canned tomatoes in puree, measured with puree
4 green chilies, seeded (or 1/2 teaspoon red pepper, or to taste)
2 tablespoons fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped
10 tablespoons (1-1/4 sticks) butter
4 teaspoons ground cumin
1 tablespoon paprika
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons garam masala (see note)
2 teaspoons ground roasted cumin seeds, optional (see note)
1/4 cup firmly packed minced fresh coriander leaves
1. Cut the chicken pieces neatly into halves, so that you have 16 pieces of chicken.
2. Put tomatoes, green chilies and ginger in a blender or food processor and blend to a fine puree.
3. Place 1 stick of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pan, preferably one with a non-stick surface, over medium heat. As the butter melts, tilt the pan in all directions to coat the surface. When the foam begins to subside, add the chicken pieces, a few at a time, and sear until they are nicely browned all over (about 2-3 minutes per batch). Remove them with a slotted spoon into a bowl and put aside.
4. Add the 4 teaspoons of cumin and the paprika to the butter in the pan and cook, stirring rapidly, for 10-15 seconds. Add the tomato mixture and cook, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened (about 5-8 minutes), stirring constantly to prevent sticking and burning.
5. Add salt, cream and chicken pieces (with any juices that have accumulated in the bowl). Gently stir the chicken to coat the pieces evenly and thoroughly with the sauce. Be careful not to break the fragile chicken pieces. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until the fat begins to separate from the sauce and a thin glaze appears on the surface (about 10 minutes). Check and stir often (but only one or two stirs at a time) to ensure that the sauce is not burning.
6. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) of butter, garam masala, and roasted cumin if you are using it. Turn off the heat, and let the dish stand, covered, for 1/2 hour before serving. When ready to serve, heat thoroughly, check for salt, and fold in the chopped coriander leaves. Serve with rice, pilaf or nan, a tandoor-cooked flat bread which can be found frozen at Indian food markets.
Note: Garam masala, a blend of many different spices including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, and nutmeg—and sometimes cumin and coriander--is sold at Indian food markets and at penzeys.com and kalustyans.com.
To “roast” cumin seeds, heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When it is hot, add the cumin seeds and stir them continuously, to prevent burning, for a few minutes, or until the seeds are lightly browned and they have released their fragrance. Remove them to a bowl and let them cool before grinding in a spice grinder.