Butter Chicken simmers in a buttery tomato sauce and is punctuated by several special spices and herbs. Skip the Indian takeout and cook up your very own version of the popular dish!
Abhinav, my brother, couldn’t get enough of butter chicken, and for that reason, I had to make a point of hating it. Sometimes sibling rivalry makes you do things that do not make any sense.
Every celebratory occasion in the family, butter chicken made an appearance on the dinner table. I would grunt and nag mom for preferring him more than me—but all of us knew that was all a façade because I would always end up wiping the plate clean.
WHAT IS BUTTER CHICKEN?
Butter chicken is prepared with marinated chicken that’s first grilled and then served in a rich gravy (a.k.a. curry) made with tomato, butter, and a special spice blend as a base.
Unlike most Indian curries where the preparation of the base starts with a blend of onion and a ginger garlic paste cooked in oil, butter chicken uses tomato as a base and is cooked in butter, giving it a slightly sweet flavor. Cashews and almonds add to the sweetness and richness of the dish.
The History of Butter Chicken
The roots of butter chicken are only as recent as the 1950s, when it was developed accidentally by the chef of famous restaurant Moti Mahal in Delhi, the capital of India. For chef Kundan Lal Gujral, it was a common practice to throw in butter, tomatoes, and leftover tandoori chicken into a pot to make use of the leftovers.
Little did he know that this dish would become their best seller and put them on the map. Now the recipe is adapted by restaurants across the world, though it’s really a “special occasion” dish in Indian homes.
BUTTER CHICKEN VS. CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA
Some people get confused between butter chicken and chicken tikka masala. The two might look and taste similar to some, too. The main difference is in the preparation.
Butter chicken uses a lot of butter (makhan in Hindi) while chicken tikka masala uses tikka masala (a spice blend) comprised of coriander, paprika, black and green cardamom, cinnamon, and turmeric. Butter chicken is sweeter and chicken tikka masala is spicier.
Even more importantly, butter chicken originated in India, while Chicken Tikka Masala was invented in the United Kingdom—it’s the national dish!
THE SPICES FOR BUTTER CHICKEN
Kashmiri Lal Mirch: Butter chicken gets its bright color and its name from Kashmiri Lal Mirch, a variety of red chile from the northern region of Kashmir. I usually buy mine from our local Indian store but online retailers carry great varieties, too. (To cheat, though, if you can’t find this spice, add a couple drops of red food coloring to brighten up the dish.)
Ginger Garlic Paste: Traditionally, freshly grated ginger and garlic are used for the paste but if you’d like to speed up the process you can also buy a jar of ginger garlic paste from a local specialty food store or order one online, such as Rani Ginger Garlic paste.
Kasuri Methi: The real unsung hero in this symphony of spices is kasuri methi, a variety of fenugreek leaves. It’s added to the dish in a very small amount, but its earthy flavor balances the richness of cream and the depth of spices used in the dish. Takes the dish to up to a whole different level.
If you have a local Indian grocery, it should carry this spice. These days, major supermarkets including Whole Foods and Safeway also carry it.
AUTHENTIC INDIAN FOOD AT HOME
With this recipe, I have tried to stay as authentic as I can, while also keeping it simple enough that you could fix it for dinner tonight without breaking your back.
Feel free to use just garam masala or even chicken tikka masala spice mix if you do not have all the spices for the marinade. You can even use paprika instead of Kashmiri Lal Mirch if you have trouble finding it, and can completely omit Kasuri Methi if you absolutely have to (but remember, it sure is the unsung hero!).
I also used roasted canned tomatoes here to save the time of peeling whole tomatoes. Canned tomato also adds to the deep red color in the dish.
Make-Ahead Butter Chicken
You can freeze this dish in an airtight covered container or a zip-top bag for a month. Thaw and reheat in a saucepan over medium-low heat to retain the texture.