Monday, August 11, 2008

Once Upon a Butter Chicken

A long, long time ago, in a hole-in-the-wall kind of an eatery, there featured a very common dish known to the locals, far and wide, as Butter Chicken. But, none quite made it like this small restaurant that called itself Kabir's in the sweet, little city of Pune. A girl aged about 10 or 11, chanced upon the dish at a soiree thrown by one of her parent's friends.

And thus began a rather arduous, one-sided, love affair.

The charming shredded chicken and its silky, rubicund gravy left an imprint so deep on the lass's palate, that although she met many a handsome butter chicken in her young life, none quite compared to her first love. Once, she had, had her share of disappointments dished by restaurant after restaurant, here and yonder, the girl took it upon herself to recreate the recipe that had indelibly carved such a niche on her heart and gut. But, alas, such are the ways of specialty entrees. Unless, the chef who creates it, is your mother -- nay, mother's are untrustworthy creatures when it comes to teaching certain recipes. They are known to keep "special ingredients" and quantities to themselves -- or grandmother, such treasures can be but lost.

Yet, the colleen persevered...

...she tried elusive recipe after difficult recipe from famous chefs. Hung around (some strange) blogs. Skimmed innumerable newspapers and magazines. Even carried out a gillion experiments in her kitchen. But, to no avail. She despaired that perhaps her first love was indeed lost in an abyss, forever. Never to be retrieved in this lifetime.

Many a years later, the girl now a married woman and mother, quite by chance, happened upon an unexpected miracle. After an endlessly long day of changing diapers and feeding a very hungry wee little one, the dame came across a recipe that she thought was quite interesting.

So, armed with a very hopeful heart, she ventured into the kitchen.

Half-way through, milady realized that a very important ingredient was missing from her pantry. It was the very one which she had used up in her endeavor to make tandoori chicken. But, not one to give up so easily -- especially, after being so close in perhaps re-creating the nuances of a dish that had kept her awake for many a night -- she turned once again to her trusty laptop-on-the-wall in the hopes of finding a from-the-scratch-tandoori-masala-recipe. Lo and behold! A gazillion (or so) popped up, but she decided on the very first one she'd googled. And it did not disappoint. She hurriedly bustled, tasting and adjusting as she went along.

Finally, after a measly hour in the scullery, the dish was ready to be savored...

...The woman broke a piece of her unleavened bread and hastily dipped it in the butter chicken gravy. At last.

As was expected it lacked the special something from Kabir's. But, it was so close to the dish she had fallen in love with many-many-a-twelve-month-ago that she almost swooned and let out such a gasp of delight that she woke the sleeping babe in the crib, down the hall, much to the chagrin of its father who had rocked her relentlessly for more than hour.

Here it is, in its entirety, for you to experience and fall in love with. As she did, once upon a time, when she was 10 or 11.

♣ Restaurant-style Butter Chicken
Loosely adapted from

You need:
2 sizable chicken breasts, skinned and sliced thin
2-3 cashews
2-3 almonds, blanched and peeled (optional); if you decide to skip the almonds, make-up by adding a couple more cashews
A tbsp of ginger-garlic paste (2-3 largish garlic cloves + 3/4th inch of ginger)
1-2 tbsp lime juice
1/2 of a large red-onion, roughly chopped
1/2 of a nicely-proportioned, juicy tomato
2 tbsp hung curd
A handful of finely chopped cilantro
1/2 stick of salted butter
2-3 tbsp of vegetable or peanut oil
A couple of tsp of salt or as per taste
A tablespoon or so of cream or whole milk
1/2 tsp of turmeric powder
1 tbsp + 2 tsp + some in dashes and sprinkles of chili powder
1 tsp of cumin powder
About a quarter teaspoon of garam masala
1 tbsp of from-scratch-tandoori masala (recipe follows below)

For Tandoori Masala, you need:
Adapted from
8 tsp ground coriander
7 tsp ground cumin
7 tsp garlic powder (if you don't like a strong garlicky taste, make it 5-6 tsp)
7 tsp paprika (I didn't have paprika, but the overall result was good nevertheless)
5 tsp ground ginger
5 tsp mango powder
2 tsp dried mint (didn't have this either, but I didn't think it made a huge difference)
5 tsp beetroot powder (or a tsp of red food coloring powder; I added a few drops of food coloring in the chicken instead)
2 tsp chili powder
2 tsp anatto seed powder (or 1/2 tsp yellow food coloring powder; or a few drops in the gravy or over the chicken)
-- Dump all the spices in a ziplock bag and give it a good shake to combine all the spices well.


To begin, place the curd in a cheesecloth or worn out cotton handkerchief, twine and hang the curd until whey is drained. Consequently, slice the chicken in neat, thin pieces. Then, spoon over tandoori masala, a teaspoon of salt, cumin, a tablespoon of chili powder and the hung curd. Using your hands, massage the spices into the chicken, and set aside in the refrigerator for an hour at least. While the chicken is marinading, roughly chop the onion and keep aside.

After that, toss in the garlic and ginger in the mixing bowl of your blender and blend to a smooth paste. Remove and put to one side, and in the same bowl, grind together the tomato along with half-a-teaspoon of chili powder, cashews and (if using) almonds.

Once the chicken is appropriately marinaded, heat oil in a roomy vessel of your choice. Into it, dump the chicken pieces and toss around until the chicken is cooked. In the last couple of minutes, squeeze in two to three drops of red and yellow food color, stir about and remove to a plate. Quickly stir in the ginger-garlic paste for a minute or so, add in the chopped onion and stir until a lovely golden-brown. Spoon over turmeric, about half-a-teaspoon of chili powder and the remaining salt. Add in the tomato-cashew-almond paste and give it about five to seven minutes in the pan, then set aside to cool completely. Remove into the mixing bowl of your blender and grind to a silky paste.

Now, in the same pan that you cooked the chicken, melt the butter and stir in the onion-tomato paste for another five to seven minutes. Add about three-fourth's of a cup of water, giving it a quick little whirl. What we want is for the sauce to bubble and to thicken slightly to add some oomphy texture. Check for the seasoning, if needed, add a few dashes of chili powder and salt. Sprinkle over the garam masala powder, give the sauce a quick whirl or two and add in the cooked chicken. Add in a couple of drops of red food color, if you think the sauce needs a bit of brightening. Let the chicken stew over a medium to low flame for about five to 10 minutes. Squeeze over the lemon juice, stirring as you squeeze, add a nice little swirl of cream or whole milk, and throw in a handful of freshly chopped cilantro to bring out the lovely tangerine hues of the butter chicken.

Serve atop a mound of steamed plain rice, or alongside your favorite unleavened bread. Relish every bite. Ever so slowly. The thing with fairy tales is, they have to be savored. Slowly.


Meera said...

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Anonymous said...

hi sheetal

isn't kasoori methi an essential ingredient in butter chicken?

your recipe miss it?


Sheetal Kiran said...

hey Riya,
Most people do like putting kasoori methi as an essential ingredient. I am not particularly fond of it, so didn't sprinkle it in. But, if I were to add it I would do so right before taking it off the heat. Hope that helps.