Copycat recipes and cookbooks full of them are a dime a dozen. Whether it’s because of nostalgia, a favorite meal or just the appeal of a challenge, there’s no shortage of people trying to re-create classic dishes or improve upon them. I’ve done it myself, most successfully for the type of scones I’ve enjoyed in England and the bagels you’d find at a really good shop.
If you like Indian food, butter chicken might be that kind of holy grail for you. You may be a fan of your local takeout place. Or perhaps you’re a devotee — there are many of them, and I can see why — of the frozen version from Trader Joe’s. Whatever the source of your inspiration, you can have the butter chicken of your dreams at home, made by you. And it’s easier than you probably think.
Count me in as an admirer of all types of Indian food. I love the variety of excellent vegetable-based dishes, especially those that are layered with spices and not weighed down by rich sauces. Sometimes, though, you want something creamy, saucy and as comforting as a warm blanket. That, in a nutshell, is butter chicken (also known as murgh makhani).
Diet food it’s not. As cookbook author Raghavan Iyer says in his intro to one of my source recipes, “If you recently had a heart attack, this is not the curry for you — sorry.”
So, yes, it’s rich, but not to the point that it’s one-note. The alchemy of butter chicken, and this recipe in particular, is how a dish that is so complex in flavor doesn’t have to cook for hours. Once the chicken is broiled, the sauce and finished dish come together in less than a half-hour. Because Iyer’s recipe used paneer (an Indian cheese) rather than chicken, I decided to crib a simple yogurt, lime and spice marinade from a previous butter chicken recipe from our archives. Sure, it added some ingredients and the time it takes to marinate and broil the meat, but I think the flavor and tenderness you get is well worth the effort. That being said, if you decided to throw this together with leftover roast chicken, paneer or even extra-firm tofu, you’d still have a pretty great meal.
After all, my favorite part of the dish is the sauce. I’d be happy to eat it alone just over rice, ideally with some warm naan. Starting with canned tomato sauce adds smooth texture and concentrated flavor that doesn’t leave you at the mercy of out-of-season grocery store tomatoes. What really takes the sauce over the top, though, and the closest to what you’d find in a restaurant are the fenugreek leaves. Check the Trader Joe’s label — they’re in there, too. They add something between a maple and licorice flavor that you won’t necessarily miss if you don’t have it, but you’ll appreciate if you do.
The rest of the ingredients are pantry and refrigerator staples. (Garam masala is easy to find at most grocery stores these days.) It almost feels like you shouldn’t be able to combine them into something that’s so spectacular that you’ll hardly be able to believe you made it. But you can and, dare I say, you should.
Recipe notes: You’ll need several metal or bamboo skewers. If using the latter, soak them in water for 30 minutes.
The chicken needs to marinate for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator, and up to overnight. The sauce can be made separately and refrigerated for a day or two. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave.
Dried fenugreek leaves are available at Indian markets (look for kasoori methi), as well as some spice shops, and via online purveyors. If you find fresh or frozen leaves, use double the amount called for in the recipe. The curry is still quite good without them, but a teaspoon or two of maple syrup added at the end of cooking can impart some of the same flavor and round out the overall balance of the curry.
Simple Butter Chicken
For the chicken
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs (trimmed of excess fat), cut into 1½-inch chunks
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (from 1 lime)
Generous ¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
¾ teaspoon sweet paprika
2 teaspoons garam masala (spice blend)
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
¼ cup plain, full-fat yogurt
1 tablespoon minced garlic (from about 3 cloves)
One 2-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced (1 tablespoon)
For the sauce
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter
15 ounces canned plain tomato sauce
¼ cup dried fenugreek leaves, soaked in a bowl of water for 15 minutes and skimmed off the top (see recipe notes)
¼ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
1½ teaspoons sugar
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon ground cumin
For the chicken: Combine the chicken pieces with the lime juice, cayenne pepper, paprika, garam masala, salt, yogurt, garlic and ginger in a mixing bowl until evenly coated. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes, and up to overnight.
Position a rack 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element; heat the broiler. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and set an ovenproof wire rack inside it. (Or use a broiler pan.)
Thread the marinated chicken pieces onto the skewers and place them on the prepared baking sheet. Broil for 10 to 15 minutes, turning once or twice, until the chicken is just cooked through. You should see a little bit of browning on the edges.
For the sauce: Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. As soon as it melts (without browning), pour in the tomato sauce. Stir in the fenugreek leaves, cayenne pepper, sugar and salt. Increase the heat to medium-high; cook just long enough so the sauce begins to bubble. Reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the butter starts to separate from the sauce, pooling on the surface.
Carefully slide the chicken off the skewers into the sauce, along with any accumulated juices. Stir in the cream and cumin, then cover and cook for 6 to 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, so the chicken absorbs some of the rich flavors in the sauce.
Uncover the pan and add the remaining tablespoon of butter; once it has melted, stir it into the sauce. Serve right away.
Adapted from recipes by restaurateur Monish Gujral and from “660 Curries,” by Raghavan Iyer (Workman, 2008).