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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Sidharth's Butter Chicken

"Amrita, puh-lease," my friend Aarti says to me, raising her eyebrows in disbelief of the question asked. "I hope you are joking."
I look at her confused. I am, you see, confused. It's the summer of '07 and I've just met a man who makes my heart lurch every time I see him. I've never felt this way before and I don't know what to do with him. So I make him meet Aarti. And then I ask her what she thinks of him. To which she raises her eyebrows in disbelief and says "Amrita, puh-lease."
Which really doesn't give me too much to go on.
"Carry on!" I say despondently, "What do you think?"
She sighs. Gives me a look. That look. "Have you totally lost the plot?” she asks me out of genuine concern.
I shake my head tentatively.
“Oh come on dude,” she says impatiently. “I've known you for years now. Everyone else you've dated all your life, and I mean everyone else - is yellow daal. This one is butter chicken."

Aah. Enlightenment. I feel like Buddha under the Bodhi tree. Which is all very apt considering the man we are discussing is called Sidharth.

For if there is any other being (human or otherwise) on this earth, other than myself, who gets as giddily excited about food, it's Aarti. So her analogy speaks volumes. It’s saying the same thing as my heart, except in a language I can understand. This one is a keeper.

Four years and one baby butter chicken later, I am glad I followed my heart. Because it continues to lurch every evening when the key turns in the door, and Sid is about to walk in. Still. Always. 

Now, all that aside, butter chicken has a very special place in my heart and for reasons that go back long before Sid came into my life. It was an integral part of my growing-up years, woven tightly into the fabric of some of the happiest memories of my childhood.

Every family, I think, has that one thing they do together, that one thing that slowly, over the years, becomes ritualistic. It could be eating breakfast together every morning, or watching a movie on Friday evenings, or going back to a favourite holiday spot every year. It could be a dish or an activity or an interest. Whatever it is, it becomes a cohesive part of your family life, at the core of all your memories. You begin to own it.

For my family, it was Sunday lunch. Every Sunday, come rain or shine, we would go out to lunch as a family. It gave the cook a break and it gave us the opportunity to celebrate together before the hectic school-work-week started again. No one made other plans on Sunday afternoons – this was our “family time,” as sacred as they come. We looked forward to it all week, everything to do with it – taking out our nice "going out" clothes, my mom looking beautiful all dressed up, my dad complimenting her adoringly, the drive to the restaurant in our cream coloured Ambassador, being greeted at the entrance by the friendly staff, entering the air conditioned, cavernous space, being escorted to our table all set up with starched white linen and gleaming cutlery, sitting down on the plush chairs, excitedly looking through the menus, animatedly deciding what we were going to eat...It was no big deal, but it was ours. And we never tired of it!
Food-wise, we would alternate between Indian and Chinese. This is India of the '80's remember - 1 TV channel, 1 domestic airline, 3 flavours of ice-cream and 2 choices of restaurant food – Indian or Chinese. Which was really absolutely fine if you don’t know any different! I especially didn’t mind, given that my lunchtime menu rarely ever changed. Chinese meant garlic chicken and noodles and Indian meant butter chicken, naan and raita. Always. Every Sunday. For years. We would only need to walk into the restaurant and the waiter taking our order would ask "...and the usual for baby?"  

Which is all a happy coincidence considering that one of the first stories Sid shared with me when we started dating was how, as a little boy, butter chicken was his “best food in the world” and how he could eat it “for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Of course, this didn’t really surprise me. Most Indian kids love butter chicken – what’s there not to love? It’s creamy, mild, tangy and fantastically flavourful (thanks mostly to the butter from which it gets its name).

What did surprise me was that as I got to know him better, first as my boyfirned, then as my fiance and finally as my husband, I realised that it is still his “best food in the world” and – quite amazingly – he can still eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Sid is a Delhi boy, as Punjab da puttar as they come. And butter chicken is Punjab's National Bird. Haha. Seriously though, legend has it that butter chicken (or Murgh Makhani) originated in the 1950's at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Famed for its Tandoori Chicken, the cooks at Moti Mahal started to recycle the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. The sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces and presto - Butter Chicken was ready! 

So, maybe it's really quite natural for my Dilli-wala Dilwala to want butter chicken equally passionately at 3 or 30.  
Well. Sucks to be him. Because all the heart lurching notwithstanding, I don't make butter chicken very often. It's not because it’s hard to make – it’s not really. It’s because somehow butter chicken is one of those dishes that is always associated with eating out. Perhaps it’s because the traditional way of making it involves cooking the chicken in a tandoor-oven, which most people don’t have at home. Or perhaps it’s because of all the butter and cream that goes into it that makes one all huffy about making it at home. Funny how we proudly boast about our non-stick, oil-free cooking at home, but we’re quite happy to stuff our faces - and our arteries – outside, without a care in the world! I have no idea what the logic behind this curiousness is, but I have to admit, I'm a sucker for it. And with butter chicken, it’s the cream and the butter that give the dish it’s dreamy, creamy texture. So therefore, it’s really impossible to skimp on them. So therefore, I don’t really make it much. So therefore, sucks to be him, I say.

Anyhoo, on Sid’s 30th birthday, the love overcame the guilt and it was butter chicken for birthday dinner. It was the first time I had cooked it at home, and boy was it a good choice! I’ve never seen his eyes light up like that before. So much love for the chicken, I was almost jealous. I could have bought him a brand new Aston Martin and he wouldn’t have been happier. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but only partly. Because it was butter chicken for dinner (his, not mine) for seven straight days after that until he had finished every last bit. Which I don't understand (one bit). But which makes me feel incredibly flattered. So, really it was win-win.

How my tall, lean husband manages to consume such copious amounts of the stuff is beyond me. I would kill for that metabolism.

So, here it is. I’m making it again: this full flavoured, rich, tomato-based, holy grail of all chicken dishes. This is occasion dining for me, and today is my son's 8 month birthday. When you make it, try to eat it guilt-free – it's allowed once in a while, even at home!

Here’s how you do it:

- 500 grams boneless chicken, cut into cubes
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup plain yogurt
- 2 tsp ginger-garlic paste
- 1 1/2 tbsp tandoori masala
- 3 tbsp butter
- 2 cardamoms
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 2 cloves
- 1 can tomato puree
- 1 tspn garam masala powder
- 1 tspn red chilli powder
- 1 tbsp honey (or sugar)
- 1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves (kasoori methi)
- 250 ml thick cream
- Salt, to taste

Marinate the chicken cubes in lemon juice, salt, chili powder, yogurt, ginger-garlic paste and tandoori powder overnight or at least for a few hours for the chicken to absorb all the flavours. When you are ready to cook the chicken, preheat the oven to your highest grill setting and grill for at least 10 minutes on each side or until cooked. Allow the chicken to cook until it just starts to char. This way, it stays moist and succulent even after it’s mixed in with the gravy

To prepare the makhani gravy, heat and melt the butter. Add the cardamoms, cinnamon sticks and cloves. Stir fry until you get the warm, crackling aroma of the cooking garam masala, and then add the tomato paste. Let the mixture simmer on low to medium heat, half covered, for about 15-20 minutes. You will notice the gravy will start to thicken. Add the rest of the ingredients as well as the grilled chicken and simmer for another 15 minutes. For a thicker and richer gravy, cashewnut paste (soak cashews in water for an hour or so and grind them) can be added while making the gravy – just fry it along with the spice powders. And – that’s it! Serve hot with naan.

For me, the most fun part about making this dish today is watching my son, watching my husband as he eats. They have identical eyes, my two boys, long-lashed and almond shaped. One set of eyes stares excitedly at the other, alight with wonderment and glee. The other shines back, twinkling with delight. It is one of those times when it’s hard to tell which set belong to whom.


  1. Ammu - what a lovely post. The last paragraph is adorable. As always very well written and sounds yummy. It is Rohan's favorite dish as well and of course - his dad can eat it any time too. :-)
    Call you soon.

  2. Thanks Tani :) Make it sometime and think of me! Lots of love to you all! xx