Experiment: Indian Butter Chicken – Murgh Makhani
Butter Chicken, or ‘Murgh Makhani’, is an Indian dish, possibly originating in the Punjab that has become widely popular as a standard on the menu in Indian restaurants around the world. Essentially, it consists of chicken in spiced sauce with tomato and cream but there are many variations on the basic idea. The chicken can be bone-in or boneless and the sauce may be made using tomato puree or either fresh or canned tomatoes. I have had many, many versions of this in restaurants all over the place but the best I can recall was one I had in Vancouver about 6 or 7 years ago. That version used fresh tomatoes and is the version I want to try and reproduce for this post.
Some recipes use fresh chicken, either light or dark meat, but leftover Tandoori chicken is supposed to be more traditional. There is a story to the effect that the dish originated when a chef in Delhi had to come up with a chicken dish on very short notice and threw some Tandoori chicken pieces into a sauce with tomato and cream to the delight of his customers. Personally, I tend to take such stories with a grain of salt as there are similar versions about dozens of other dishes, but I do think that using leftover Tandoori chicken makes for a superior result. For a recent ‘Foodstuffs’ post on two different Tandoori Masalas, I cooked up three batches of Tandoori chicken, two to test the Masalas, and then an extra one to use for this experiment…
The Main Ingredients
- Leftover Tandoori Chicken pieces
- 4 medium tomatoes, seeds removed and chopped
- 1 small onion sliced in paper thin half-rings
- 1 ½ tsp. minced ginger
- 1 tbsp. minced garlic
- 1/4 cup green chili sliced into slivers
- 1 half stick of butter
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- 1 – 2 tbsp. Dried Fenugreek Leaf (Kasoori Methi)
- 2 tbsp. Spice Blend (See Masala below)
In India, the butter component would actually be Ghee, or clarified butter, but I am using just plain butter for this experiment. If you like, you can cut down on the amount a little, but this dish is supposed to be quite rich. You can omit the Fenugreek leaf if this is unavailable to you but it really adds to the dish and, if you can get the fresh leaf (which I cannot), by all means use that instead of the dried.
The Masala, which is just the Hindu name for a spice blend, can vary widely in this dish. Cloves and Cinnamon are not uncommon additions but I want to keep mine fairly light and sprightly for this experiment. If you are not inclined to blend your own spices, you can try substituting a tablespoon or so of a nice, light commercial curry powder. My choice of spices is as follows:
- Turmeric – 1 tsp.
- Fenugreek Seed – 1 tsp.
- Cumin – 1 tsp.
- Coriander – 1 ½ tsp.
- Green Cardamom – 6 pods
- Salt – 2/3 tsp.
To make the Masala, individually toast the cumin, coriander and fenugreek seed in a dry pan until they just start to darken and release their aromas. Next, grind all the spices together to a fine powder. If you are grinding in a mortar you may wish to open the cardamom pods and just use the inner seeds, otherwise just throw everything in an electric grinder and then pass through a fine sieve to remove any husks. Cover and set-aside until ready to use.
The first thing you need to do is cut the chicken pieces into much smaller chunks using a heavy knife, a cleaver, or a strong pair of poultry shears.
Next, melt half the butter in a deep pan at medium heat. Add the garlic and ginger and when it is fragrant add the spice masala and stir for a minute or so. Add the onion shreds and continue stirring from time to time until they are soft and just starting to brown a little.
Now add two cups of the tomatoes. Turn up the heat a little and stir frequently, mashing with the back of the spoon from time to time until the tomatoes breakdown and a thick sauce begins to form. Add the fenugreek leaves, if using and after a moment, add the cream. Stir and, if necessary, turn down the heat a bit so that the cream simmers but does not boil.
Once the sauce is smoothly combined, add the remaining butter, the rest of the tomatoes and the chili shreds. Continue cooking for a few minutes until all is heated through and, finally, add the chicken. Continue to simmer until the chicken is hot but be careful when you stir so that the chicken meat doesn’t start to break up or come off the bones. When it is all cooked through, carefully lift the chicken pieces into a serving dish and spoon over the sauce. Garnish with cilantro or parsley if desired and serve immediately.
Well, I have to say that I have mixed feelings about the results of this experiment. I have had Butter Chicken at restaurants that was awful and this had those efforts beaten hands down. However, I also have to admit that it was not as good as the version that I had in Vancouver and tried to duplicate here. The sauce was nicely spiced and very tasty but it wasn’t as rich and buttery as I hoped and, while I was trying to get away from that almost ‘sweet and sour’ tomato sauce taste that many bad versions have, this could have had a bit more tang.
I was also a bit disappointed with the appearance. It wasn’t as bright or ‘clean’ looking as I was aiming for and could basically have been any generic sort of chicken curry, really. The chili I used was not as hot as I would have liked and the skins were a bit tough. In fact, my wife and I both ended up spitting them out. I didn’t have the problem myself, but my wife also encountered quite a few little chips of bone left over from when I chopped the larger pieces and she was less than impressed … I’ll have to remember to watch for that next time.
Anyway, while this experiment actually made for a pretty decent supper along with some garlicky flatbread I was ultimately disappointed. I do have some ideas about how to improve it though, and I will post the results of future experiments when I can…