Butter Chicken: A Delicious Indian Dish

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Butter chicken, also known as murgh mahal, chicken makhani, and various other names, is a dish of chicken in a mildly spiced curry sauce. It owes its origins to Mughal cuisine dating back to the time and place of the last of the Great Mughal. In 1947, the transfer of power and subsequent carnage provided the backdrop of the birth of India and Pakistan. Millions were forced to leave behind their ancestral homes to cross the newly drawn borders of India and Pakistan. Amongst the displaced were a Punjabi Hindu family, the Kohlapur’s. They took refuge at the local K in and Haveli, and it was here that Kundan Lal, the eldest of six siblings, decided to set up a small dhaba (roadside restaurant). With money being in short supply and a number of mouths to feed, Kundan Lal looked to feed his family and other refugees cheaply. Given that most people were vegetarian and resources were limited, Kundan Lal made use of leftover tandoori chicken that had been grilled in a clay oven, by shredding the chicken and serving it in a tomato-based sauce rich in butter and cream. This was a great success with the refugees in the local area. To further enhance the dish and keep costs down, only the best, most succulent and flavorful parts of the chicken were selected. These were usually the chicken thighs and legs, traditionally the least desired cuts in Indian culture. The results were tender and flavorsome and to this day are now synonymous with butter chicken. Through trial and error and further experimentation, Kundan Lal finally perfected the recipe, and the family had a new lease on life. In 1956, the dhaba was redeveloped and relocated to Banga Bhawan Road in New Delhi, and with this came the birth of Moti Mahal. The restaurant was an instant hit and has since then become a landmark in the history of Indian cuisine. Today, butter chicken holds an iconic status amongst Indian food and is one of the best-known internationally. This was further endorsed in recent times when the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, hosted a state dinner for General Perves Musharaf, the President of Pakistan. The dish was such a hit with the President that he asked for an extra serving to take home. In many western countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, butter chicken has surpassed the popularity of any other Indian recipe and is often considered synonymous with Indian cuisine. The UK celebrates National Curry Week, which is sponsored by a well-known brand of beer. It was voted through an online poll on their official website that butter chicken was the greatest Indian culinary export to the United Kingdom. This was so decided as butter chicken had until this time remained a closely guarded secret both at home and in restaurants. Due to this fact, many new recipe variations have emerged and have made their way back into India. A second variation is that they were not the most authentic version as sugar and food coloring were used to enhance the appearance and overall sweetness of the dish. Nowadays, butter chicken can be found all over the world in various forms and is an integral part of Indian and Pakistani cuisine.

Origin of Butter Chicken

Whatever be the true origin, butter chicken is delectable, and its succulence has made it an internationally acclaimed Indian dish. Its varying degrees of spiciness make it a suitable dish for foreigners to adopt as their own. This Indian classic can even be said to have vast similarities to a mild chicken curry without bones.

Another story goes that Kundan Lal Gujral, the owner of a popular Indian restaurant Moti Mahal and an experimental chef, was instrumental in giving butter chicken a permanent place in the Indian pantheon of food. It is said that the closure (due to partition) of Moti Mahal forced Kundan Lal to move to Delhi, and there he invented tandoor (clay oven) chicken tikka and simmering the leftover chicken tikka in a rich tomato-cream gravy, thus giving rise to butter chicken, which soon became the hallmark of his restaurant.

One story involves Emperor Shah Jahan who ruled India during the period of Mughal Empire. It is said that the Emperor, after a hard day of battle, demanded a feast that was not the usual fare. The royal cooks rustled up this dish in a hurry with the ingredients available at that time: a whole chicken, tomatoes, butter, and cream. He found the dish excellent, and from there, chicken makhani or butter chicken became a royal hallmark of Indian cuisine fit for the Mughal Kings.

Popularity of Butter Chicken

Butter chicken became popular in Delhi for making the best out of tandoor-cooked chicken. After being left with lots of chicken but also a mass of hungry customers, he made a creamy tomato soup and mixed it with the leftover chicken. The dish was an instant hit. The popularity of butter chicken led to the opening of the restaurant Moti Mahal Delux in Daryaganj, Delhi, now known as Moti Mahal, where the chef Kundan Lal Gujral worked. The dish was simple, unique, and amazing and went on to become an iconic dish of India. Moti Mahal was not only famed for making great non-veg delicacies, but it was also famous for the invention of Tandoori Cuisine. The true inventors of butter chicken were the founders of Moti Mahal, and unlike other secrets that are often hard to trace, the secret of butter chicken is very much out there. Diners love the rich, creamy, and flavorful sauce that is mixed with the chicken, and this is a dish also loved by children. But the recipe has been heavily modified into a sweet, child-friendly dish and is seldom true to its authentic version. The taste of butter chicken has been modified to suit the wide palate of different cultures, and this has led to the dish being likable to a variety of different people from all over the world. Today, many people list butter chicken as their most loved Indian dish, and Money from UK listed it as one of Britain’s favorite Indian recipes.

Ingredients and Preparation

The necessary ingredients are: 1 1/2 lb chicken pieces, 1/4 cup yogurt, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground red pepper, 1 tsp ground black pepper, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp ground ginger, 3/4 cup butter, 3 cinnamon sticks, 3-4 whole cloves, 1/2 large onion (chopped), 2 tsp minced fresh garlic, 2 tsp minced fresh ginger, 1 hot green chile (minced), 1 1/2 tsp ground coriander, 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground cardamom, 1 tsp paprika, 1 can tomato sauce, 1 cup heavy cream, 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro. For the chicken pieces, you should use any combination of boneless chicken breasts or thighs. You can take one or the other, or even a combination of the two and each tastes great. For the most traditional flavor and best taste, use dark meat with the skin. The fat in the skin will add flavor and help keep the meat from getting too dry while it bakes in the oven. If you use chicken breast, it will stay a little more moist and be more tender. This is the only variation that most people will notice and having tried both, I feel that I have been able to combine the best of both using half and half. Any package of chicken in the grocery store will be more than 1 1/2 lb so you can easily just use the whole thing. The chicken will also marinate better in this sauce, but may require just a little more cooking time to get it to absorb some of the sauce flavor once it is mixed in.

Key Ingredients

The key ingredient required for the preparation would necessitate tender pieces of boneless chicken that is marinated in yogurt and a mix of Garam masala and garlic. The marinated chicken is left for as long as twenty-four hours, resulting in tenderizing the meat to a great extent. The reason that the chicken is left overnight is so that the yogurt can seep into the meat. Traditionally, the dish is prepared using a whole chicken which is cut into sixteen pieces. This provides the dish with a greater flavor as the bones from the chicken give it an added taste. It is much more convenient to prepare this dish using boneless chicken; therefore, pieces of breast or thigh are an optimal choice. The use of green cardamom is removed in this dish; however, it is used in a variety of other recipes. The color is obtained from the paprika, and the bright red comes from the tandoori masala. Other ingredients include butter, cream, tomato puree, and various spices. In more recent times, the dish has seen an evolution and it is hardly ever roasted in a tandoor but may be grilled or roasted in an oven. It may be made with extra cream, giving it a rich and kingly flavor. Cashew paste may be added to the sauce for a richer, smoother texture. And finally, honey is added for sweetness. This is generally regarded as unhealthy in Indian culture and is a trait acquired from many Indian immigrants living abroad.

Cooking Process

Cooking butter chicken involves marinating bite-sized pieces of chicken and then cooking them in a tandoor oven, after which a tomato, onion, and yogurt-based sauce is added. The chicken is marinated in a mixture of yogurt and tandoori masala, a spice blend. Various proportions of spices are added to the marinade. In the UK, tandoori colorant is often used to give the characteristic red-pink color present in many restaurant versions of the dish. The marinated chicken is then placed on skewers and cooked in a tandoor at about 480°C. The tomato and butter sauce used in the modern-day dish was unknown before the 20th century. It is thought that butter chicken was hastily prepared by a Delhi eatery chef post cooking chicken in tomato soup, adding a number of spices including butter. The results were so good that it became a classic in its own right. Though this story is popular, it is almost certainly an urban legend. In all probability, butter chicken was inspired by a similar dish, chicken tikka, and masala is its late addition. And unlike chicken tikka, it was a well-thought-out dish, not a hasty experiment. According to the owner of the famous Delhi restaurant, Moti Mahal, the dish was born in the 1950s. When nearing the end of the day, a mixed together the leftovers of tandoori chicken with a rich tomato gravy, butter, and cream. This new dish was met with universal acclaim and has since then been standard in its recipe.

Variations of Butter Chicken

An offshoot of chicken tikka masala, known as “Buttered chicken,” is said to have been developed in the UK as a milder and sweeter version of butter chicken to suit the Western palate. This dish has extra sugar and is heavy on the cream and butter. The tomato sauce often includes a small amount of ketchup. This has become increasingly popular with large European and American populations of Indian descent, who find that it more closely resembles that of take away and restaurant curries, which often have a large amount of sauce flavored with ketchup to save on using expensive spices. Many other variations exist and new ones are constantly being invented. In many areas, it is common for butter chicken to be taken out of the sauce and put into wraps or sandwiches, with a variety of fillings.

Outside South Asia, this dish has become so popular that creative cooks have tried to adapt it in a number of ways. In some British and American restaurants, the amount of butter is doubled to make it richer and more flavorful. This stems from a common misconception that Indian food should be very rich. In other places, it is toned down significantly. Sugar, as a sweet-tasting substance, is often added to try to offset the spiciness. This has led to a great deal of confusion about what this dish should taste like. In a 2007 interview, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook caused a minor scandal when he claimed that chicken tikka masala was a British national dish. In response, Krisna Mayi, the wife of the Indian high commissioner, scoffed, “Not if Mr. Cook tasted real chicken tikka, he would know it was not a British dish.”

Another popular variation is to just lightly season the chicken, grill it (traditionally in a tandoor but this is more often done on a barbecue grill), then serve it with a small amount of sauce that has been thickened with corn starch. This is a much lighter, healthier version of the dish.

Butter chicken has a number of regional variations. In fact, tandoori chicken, which is marinated in yogurt and spices then roasted in a tandoor oven (the traditional cooking process), is a dish of Punjab and is not common in the rest of India. One easily prepared recipe is to marinate boneless chicken overnight in a mixture of yogurt, lemon juice or vinegar, and a variety of spices such as cumin, ground red chili, and Garam Masala. This leads to a much drier, spicier version of the dish.

Flavor Profile and Serving Suggestions

A common delicacy among all classes found in most Indian restaurants but also prepared in many homes. The flavor of the dish is its most distinct feature. Though the preparation of this recipe varies from place to place, the identifying taste of butter chicken can be traced to the presence of tomato and the buttery consistency of the gravy. The cream may be used in the marinade, but it’s also used as a finishing garnish and to add an additional layer of richness to the sauce. Cashews and almonds also provide a slight sweetness to the dish, as well, and it’s rounded out with spices like fenugreek and garam masala. Butter chicken is usually on the milder side, so it’s a hit with kids, making this a great recipe for the whole family. The rich, creamy sauce mixed with the sweet taste of almond and cashew will have the whole family craving for more. This dish is a rich and creamy delicacy. Coming from Delhi and Punjab, butter chicken is spiced mildly. It’s tomato sauce that provides the dish, which gives it a slight tangy flavor. The chicken is marinated to mix in the sauce and has a creamy curry-like consistency. Coming from Delhi and Punjab, butter chicken is spiced mildly and tastes richer with the butter and cream added to it. This dish is a rich and creamy delicacy.

Rich and Creamy Taste

The flavor profile of Butter Chicken is rich and creamy, with a mild tomato base, served on a bed of plain rice or with a crisp Naan. The chicken is usually cooked in a Tandoor (clay oven), but may be grilled, roasted, or pan fried. It is served in a mild curry sauce that includes liberal amounts of butter. The sauce also contains cream, tomato puree, ground almonds or cashew paste, and various spices. The sauce is orange colored due to the liberal use of turmeric, chili powder and tomato puree. The sauce is smooth and thick, upholding a standard to curry sauces. In original preparation, the chicken is marinated overnight in a mixture of yogurt and spices which also render the chicken to be incredibly tender, almost to the point of falling off the bone. The dish was developed in 1948 by the founders of the restaurant Moti Mahal. The dish was made “by chance” by mixing leftover chicken in a tomato gravy, rich in butter and cream. Today, when there are a number of dishes which are pre-marinated, chef Harpal says that marination in the authentic butter chicken preparation is most essential. He suggests that it should be done making use of lime juice, red chili powder and salt. The version of preparation has changed according to the years, but characteristic authentic preparation is mainly followed in Delhi and London. It is one of the most popular Indian dishes.

Accompaniments and Side Dishes

Another great side dish is a simple green salad made with cucumber, lettuce, tomato, red onion and a bit of lemon juice. This side dish is light, refreshing, and crisp which can really help to cut through the rich and creamy flavour of the chicken.

If you’re looking for a savoury side dish then you can’t go past a plate of dhal. The earthy flavour of the lentils works well with the buttery taste of the chicken and the yellow colour of the dhal looks great next to the red/orange colour of the chicken.

Butter chicken and a mango chutney are a match made in heaven! The sweetness of the mango chutney really balances out the rich and slightly tangy flavour of the butter chicken while the hint of ginger, garlic and chilli in the chutney doesn’t overpower the subtle flavours of the chicken.

There is no hard and fast rule as to what should be served with butter chicken, so you can really let your imagination run wild and be creative with your choice of side dishes. Having said that, there are some side dishes that seem to have a natural affinity with butter chicken.

Pairing with Naan or Rice

Butter chicken combined with naan bread is a quintessential ‘taste of India’ meal. Some traditionalists advocate using only a type of flatbread known as ‘naan’ to scoop up the gravy of this dish; however, rice is a great alternative, especially for those who like the taste of the butter chicken gravy. In North India, where butter chicken was created, it is most often eaten with rice and is a central part of an average meal for the common man. Usually only special occasions would call for the making or purchasing of expensive delicacies like naan bread. Basmati rice is the typical choice as it is a long grain rice. It is aromatic and when properly cooked, it is light and fluffy. Rice in the North is usually cooked by measuring a specific amount of rice and water and then cooking the water off. This results in rice that is still quite moist and has each grain separate from the others. In comparison, other regions cook the rice in excess water and then drain the water off resulting in ‘sticker’ rice. Each family will have its own recipe for rice, but it will be similar to the method given below.

Butter Chicken Around the World

A recent trend that has been seen in western countries such as the UK and America is the evolution of fusion butter chicken recipes. The aim of these recipes has been to integrate the concepts of butter chicken with the fast food culture of the west. There have been dishes such as the “butter chicken pizza” that use the sauce as a pizza base and are topped with grilled chicken and vegetables. Another example is the “butter chicken burrito” where the butter chicken is wrapped in a tortilla along with rice and beans. These recipes are great examples of how the cultures of different countries can be blended to create original and innovative dishes.

Many different world cuisines have adapted the basics of the butter chicken recipe to suit their individual styles and tastes. In the Caribbean, for example, the addition of scotch bonnet peppers and allspice gives their version of the recipe a uniquely spicy and sweet flavor. Not far away in Fiji, the curries are much milder and are usually cooked with coconut milk instead of cream. Over in South Africa, the chicken is marinated in tandoori spices and then cooked in a creamy tomato sauce with added bell peppers. Australians have also adopted the recipe to suit their love of barbecuing by marinating the chicken and cooking it on the grill. These versions we see are just a few of the many examples of how butter chicken is so versatile and can be altered to suit different tastes around the world.

Butter Chicken in Different Cuisines

Certainly, the Butter Chicken has been popularized and modified to suit virtually every palate in the world, especially in the South Asian diaspora. It’s true that a dish can take on a life of its own and so it’s been with Butter Chicken. You can find the “original” being served in homes and traditional Indian restaurants worldwide. It’s known best for being served over basmati rice and accompanied with Indian breads. In Fiji, the dish is a staple and its taste has been “Fijianized.” It’s prepared more spicy than the original and is a much thinner consistency and like most Indian dishes in Fiji, it’s often topped with a boiled egg. In the Caribbean, particularly Trinidad who has large Indian and Indo-Caribbean populations, the dish can take on a very distinct smoky flavor as it’s seasoned with Caribbean style curry powder and often finished with a slight scotch bonnet pepper heat. The Brits (most of which have probably never set foot in India) have their own version of Butter Chicken and why wouldn’t they? The UK is home to some of the finest Indian food outside of India and with the invention of Tikka Masala, it’s clear the British have a love affair with Indian food. Many British versions today are made by marinating and grilling the chicken, adding it to the sauce and finishing it with a touch of cream. The city of Glasgow has been said to have a particularly unique Butter Chicken and there is some debate that it’s actually rival to that of the Indian restaurants in Delhi. Finally, America has many variations of Butter Chicken and likely because of the diversity of available ingredients and spices. The sweet and tangy tomato flavor of the American-Chinese dish sweet and sour, even inspired a restaurant owner in British Columbia to create a fusion of Butter Chicken and Sweet and Sour which became so popular; it was featured in a segment on the Food Network.

Fusion Recipes and Modern Twists

In North America, the butter chicken prepared in restaurants is often a much sweeter version of what you would find in India. Sugar and other sweeteners are added to make a very rich and sweet-tasting sauce. Additionally, the sweetness is intensified by using canned tomato or sweetened tomato paste. Most people have taken a liking to this sweeter-tasting version, but it is not the healthiest or most traditional way of preparing butter chicken.

In the UK, ready-prepared tandoori chicken is dipped into a sauce which is quite similar to a tomato soup, flavored with butter and a few spices. Most westerners abroad often refrain from adding traditional spices used in Indian cooking such as methi, black cardamom, and turmeric due to fear of adding too much heat to the dish. This is generally the first step of the evolution process from traditional butter chicken to a more westernized version.

As butter chicken increased in popularity across different parts of the world, many chefs have experimented with creating various different fusion recipes and modern twists of the traditional butter chicken. The most common modern version of butter chicken is using boneless chicken. As boneless chicken is much more popular and convenient in the west, where the majority of butter chicken is consumed, bone-in chicken still remains the more popular way of preparing butter chicken in India. This is often done by well-accomplished chefs to cater to those who are not satisfied with a westernized version and still wish to maintain the authenticity of the traditional method.

Butter Chicken’s Global Appeal

For these many groups butter chicken serves as a way to preserve and express their Indian culture in an environment that is not predominantly Indian. The dish is a symbol of Indian cuisine that is known to many and offers an immediate sense of connection and sociology between people from different backgrounds. In Canada for example, butter chicken has sometimes been coined as a national dish. It serves as a multicultural icon and blends in with the country’s ethic mosaic and the recipe itself has actually been tailored to include unique Canadian ingredients.

While it is not the most commonly prepared dish in Indian households, nor is it the most traditional and authentic Indian dish, it is synonymous with Indian food for many people. Often Westerners will admit to trying Indian food for the first time and it being butter chicken that they first sampled. Many people who are not of Indian origin often mention butter chicken as the only Indian dish they have tried. The palate appeal of this dish for foreign taste buds is evident as over the years it has become both a restaurant staple and household mainstay in many non-Indian areas. This has occurred to the point where the average consumer may often be more accustomed to Westernised, overly sweet, and rich variations of butter chicken, as opposed to that of an authentic Indian one. Communities with large populations of people of Indian descent also favour butter chicken for ease of cooking and flavour.

The expansion of the global food market, combined with cuisines merging and melding with one another, suggests that people find familiarity and comfort in non-indigenous foods. Butter chicken has been comfortably positioned in the familiar food category for many people, regardless of their ethnic background. This has allowed it to become a representative of Indian culture.