This is my take on the classic Indian butter chicken, a dish that certainly gives other classics like Alfredo a serious run for their money in terms of how to tantalize the mouth with the full-fat richness of butter … and cream. Similar to, but different from, tikka masala or even paneer, you’ll find versions of this dish that use everything from milk to yogurt; there similar versions of Alfredo that bid to reduce the fat in the dish.
I don’t believe in low-fat or fat-free substitutes; I believe that if you’re going to experience the true decadence of a dish, then experience it, damn it … simply do so as part of a balanced diet and in moderation. Butter chicken isn’t going to kill you … unless you eat it every day. (Sounds like a great challenge for Morgan Spurlock if he wants to do a sequel to Super Size Me.) And let’s face it, this isn’t called “Butter Chicken” because it tastes like yogurt.
Ok, so by now you’ve either decided that you’ll never eat this again … or you’re saying, where do I start? For those of you who want to start, rest assured, this is a a very very easy dish to make: it just takes some planning.
But, first, you need to start at the beginning — which means you need to make tandoori chicken because the real secret to butter chicken isn’t that it contains fat but that it is actually a classic leftover dish. And, if you’re like me, if you had tandoori chicken in your house, it doesn’t last long enough to become leftovers, so you’re going to have to start by making it. Some recipes would have you just throw some tandoori spices in the butter chicken sauce or have you fry up the chicken in the spices and call it a day. DON’T DO THIS. The result is a dish that quite frankly tastes like crap (too honest?). The reason tandoori chicken is prized isn’t the spices per se, it’s the fact that the chicken marinated in the yogurt and spices for a day before it was cooked. The bacteria and acid in the yogurt breaks down the chicken, makes it mouthwateringly tender, keeps it juicy, and permeates it with flavour. Now that’s what I call a good thing….
Too much work? No — the tandoori marinade takes 5 minutes to make. All it takes is an extra day of planning to execute.
The next key in the preparation of this dish is the barbecue/grill. A tandoor is actually the name of the traditional earthenware baking oven (a “clay pot” built into the ground to insulate) and in which things like naan bread (stuck to the sides of the tandoor) and chicken are baked/roasted (giving the chicken its name). While a kamado grill (like a Big Green Egg) would be a great substitute, most don’t have this luxury, so my solution is to skewer the chicken instead, and grill it over high-heat until a nice char has formed and imparting that tandoor feel to the meat.
The sauce, which varies across the world as much as a mother’s gravy or stuffing recipe, is deadly simple to make. Irrespective of my comments above about fat, I’m still sensitive to making sure there are “good” fats in this dish where possible. For this reason, I don’t just rely on butter/milk fats but also use nut fats (cashew or almond butter) and coconut milk. Why I feel comfortable with these “substitutions” is that they bring a greater depth of flavour to the dish and don’t behave as if you’re just taking fat “out.”
So go out and invite a group of friends for a convivial meal that will sure to warm your home. Failing that, know that this is a dish that freezes exceptionally well, so don’t give yourself a coronary by eating it all yourself. But whatever you do, have fun with this because some dishes are classics for good reason.
Prep time: 15 minutes (plus 1-day for chicken to marinate)
Cook time: 60 minutes
Total time: 75 minutes
Indian Butter Chicken
- 2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee) or coconut oil
- 2 cups onion (2 medium onions), minced
- 1 Serrano chili pepper, deseeded and minced fine
→ less spicy? use only half the chili pepper
- 1 tablespoon garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon ginger, minced
- 1 tablespoon ground coriander
- 2 teaspoons garam masala
- 2 teaspoons paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric
- 1/4 cup cashew butter
→ you can substitute almond butter, but it will be stronger in taste
- 1½ cups (12oz / 375mL) tomato sauce
- 1½ cups (375mL) heavy whipping cream
- 3/4 cup (6oz / 175mL) coconut milk
- 1/2 cup butter
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1-2 teaspoons white sugar (to taste — to balance out the potential bitterness of canned tomatoes)
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro (to finish)
- 1½-2 pounds (900g) skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 1/2 cup (125mL) plain yogurt (any fat content is fine)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 tablespoon ginger, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon chili paste
- 1 tablespoon tandoori masala
- Prepare the marinade by peeling and mincing the ginger and mixing all the ingredients together in a non-reactive glass/ceramic bowl.
Mix them well together …
Cube the chicken into 1-inch (2.5-cm) bite-sized chunks.
Fold the chicken into the marinade and ensure all pieces are covered. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, preheat grill to 450ºF (225ºC). Remove chicken from the marinade and thread onto skewers.
Place skewers on the grates and grill for 4 minutes …
… flip, and grill for 4 minutes further.
Remove and set aside while you make the sauce.
- In a large frying pan or heavy-bottomed stainless-steel saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Stir in the onions.
Reduce temperature to medium-low and continue to sauté onions for about 15 minutes until they’ve caramelized.
Stir in the chile and garlic and ginger and heat for a minute …
… then stir in spices and fry another minute …
… then melt in the cashew butter.
Stir in the tomato sauce, the coconut milk, and the cream.
Blend well, then melt in the butter.
Stir well, then simmer on low heat for about 10 minutes …
… until the fat starts to separate from sauce. It will turn a beautiful colour that looks like hot lava poking through a tropical sunset. Remove from heat.
- Meanwhile, remove the tandoori chicken from the skewers. Be careful — the chicken is exceptionally delicate at this point. When sauce is ready, add chicken to the butter sauce.
- Stir everything together, cover the pan, and let simmer another 20 minutes, stirring at least once, after 10 minutes, to prevent sauce and chicken from burning.
Taste for seasoning and add salt and possibly a pinch or two of sugar if there is any residual bitterness that sometimes comes with canned tomatoes.Either just before serving, blend in the chopped fresh cilantro … or sprinkle it on top when you plate.
Serve with basmati rice or warm naan or roti bread.