Butter chicken? Isn’t that just a misspelling of battered chicken? No, they’re two different dishes. Battered chicken is chicken dipped in batter and deep fried. Butter chicken is tandoori chicken braised in sauce (yes, something like chicken tikka masala), and has a very interesting history.
In 1947, British India was divided into Union of India (what we know today as India) and Dominion of Pakistan (today, Pakistan and Bangladesh). The Partition of India resulted in massive population transfers. Muslims in India crossed the border to Pakistan while Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan moved to India.
Three employees of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Peshawar in Pakistan were among the millions that moved to India and became refugees. Without any skills to make a living except what they learned in Moti Mahal, they opened a Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi with the blessing of the original owner in Peshawar. They sold tandoori chicken which, until then, was little known outside of Peshawar.
The problem of what to do with leftover tandoori chicken gave birth to the dish that we now call butter chicken. To rehydrate the grilled chicken meat, it was braised in a sauce with copious amounts of butter and cream. Tomatoes and spices gave the sauce more flavor and color.
So, you can’t make butter chicken the traditional way unless you have tandoori chicken. Since we don’t own a tandoor, when my daughter, Alex, first cooked butter chicken at home, she used what we have — an oven.
The last time we cooked butter chicken, we thought about the air fryer but ours is rather small and there was too much chicken to fit in. So, the chicken went into the oven as before.
Alex marinated chicken leg quarters with traditional Indian spices and yogurt, and I roasted the chicken on a rack in the oven.
The roasted chicken was cooled a bit to separate the meat from the bones. The bones were discarded and the meat was cut into bite-size pieces.
Making the sauce began by browning chopped onion in butter. This is a stage that you just can’t hurry up. Cook the onion over high heat and the bits will burn fast. So, the onion needs to brown over low heat to properly soften and caramelize.
Tomatoes, cream and the pan juices from the roasted chicken were added to the aromatic onion and everything was heated until the sauce was simmering.
The roasted chicken was stirred in and left to simmer in the sauce. During this stage, the spices and seasonings in the chicken and pan juices blended with the cream. To balance the flavors, salt and sugar were stirred in before the butter chicken was served.
- 800 grams chicken thighs and drumsticks
- ¾ cup plain yogurt
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon grated ginger with the juice
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- ½ teaspoon coriander powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon tumeric powder
- 1 ½ tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon oil (we use plam oil at home)
For the sauce
To garnish and serve
- paratha or rice
Cook the chicken
- Place all the ingredients in the section "tandoori chicken" in a bowl, mix well, cover and allow to marinate for at least eight hours or overnight.
- Preheat the oven to 375F.
- Line a tray with foil or non-stick paper and position a rack on top.
- Arrange the chicken on the rack, at least an inch apart, and roast for 30 to 40 minutes depending on the size of each piece.
- Take the chicken out of the oven and allow to cool slightly. Reserve the pan juices.
Braise the deboned chicken in the sauce
- Melt the butter in a pan.
- Over low heat, sweat the chopped onion and, when the moisture has evaporated, continue cooking until browned along the edges. This takes about 10 minutes with occasional stirring.
- Meanwhile, debone the chicken and chop the meat into bite-sized pieces.
- Add the chopped tomatoes, cream and pan juices to the onion in the pan and bring to a simmer.
- Stir in the chicken and allow to simmer (don't boil because the cream will curdle!) for about five minutes.
- Taste the sauce. Add salt and sugar, as needed.
- Transfer the butter chicken to a serving bowl and top with cilantro.