Along with Chicken Tikka Masala, Butter Chicken is without a doubt one of the most well known Indian dishes around the world. But unlike Chicken Tikka Masala, which is sometimes claimed as a national dish of the UK, Butter Chicken (Murgh Makhani) is decidedly of North Indian provenance.
Maybe it’s the name (can you think of a more decadent sounding name?), or perhaps it has a flavor profile that appeals across cultures. Whatever the reason, butter chicken has managed to find its way around the globe, showing up on menus from Toronto to Tokyo to Turin.
While I love butter chicken, I have a few problems with many restaurant versions. The first is that it’s often sugary sweet. The second issue is that it’s often made with leftover tandoori chicken, which by the time it makes it into the butter sauce, could make the cut for an NHL approved hockey puck.
If you take the time to caramelize the tomatoes (yes, tomatoes!) this dish has a natural sweetness that really doesn’t need any added sugar. The sweetness along with the pleasant tang from the yogurt marinated chicken balances out the rich creaminess from the butter and cream. Also, if you’re making this at home, you have the luxury of under-cooking the chicken on the grill, so that it doesn’t end up overcooked in the sauce.
You might be wondering why you have to go through the effort of reducing the tomato puree since a bunch of liquid gets added back in at the end. Those of you who have made French Onion Soup in the past, probably know the magic that happens as the Maillard reaction transforms the pungent onion into a sweet and infinitely complex melange of flavors as the sugars reduce. But who ever said that onions were the only vegetable you could do this to?
Once the tomatoes have reduced down to a glossy paste, I whisk in some cashew milk. This not only provides a creamy base which allows me to cut down on the amount of cream I add, it also gives the sauce body. Lastly, I like to strain the spices out of the sauce, making the finished butter chicken easier to eat (there’s nothing worse than biting into a fibrous cardamom pod or a mouth numbing clove)
- Put the ginger and garlic into a small food processor and puree, you may need to add a bit of water to make it go. If you don't have a small food processor, you can grate by hand.
- In a small bowl, whisk the yogurt, vegetable oil, salt, garam masala, saffron, and 2 teaspoons of the garlic ginger mixture together. Save the remaining garlic ginger mixture for the sauce.
- Put the chicken in a freezer bag and pour the marinade all over it, rubbing it into the chicken. Squeeze all the air out of the bag and seal it. Marinate for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
- For the sauce, puree the stewed tomatoes with their juices along with the tomato paste in a blender or food processor.
- Add the butter to a pot along with the green cardamom, black cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Fry the mixture until the cloves are puffy.
- Add the fenugreek seeds, chili peppers, and remaining garlic ginger mixture and saute until browned, and very fragrant.
- Add the pureed stewed tomatoes and tomato paste and cook this mixture over medium heat until the tomatoes have become very thick and paste-like (about 45 minutes). Once the mixture starts sputtering you'll want to stir it pretty regularly to keep the sputtering under control while maintaining enough heat to reduce the liquid.
- While the tomatoes are reducing, grill the chicken. You can use either an outdoor grill or broiler, but in either case it needs to be very hot. You want to get the outside lightly charred, but you don't want to cook the chicken all the way through as it will finish cooking in the sauce. If you cook it completely now, it will get overcooked in the sauce.
- Transfer the chicken to a cutting board and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before cutting.
- In a blender or food processor, add the raw cashew nuts along with 2 cups of water. Puree until smooth and milk-like in color.
- When the tomato mixture is done caramelizing turn off the heat and add the cashew nut milk, whisking it together.
- Pass the sauce through a wire strainer into a saucepan, pressing on the solids with a silicone spatula to get as much sauce through as you can.
- Cut the chicken into large chunks and add it to the pot with the sauce along with the salt, fenugreek leaves and garam masala. Cook this for 6-8 minutes over medium heat until the chicken is cooked through.
- Add the cream and stir together and then turn the heat off. Plate the butter chicken and drizzle a little extra cream on top. Garnish with some cilantro leaves.