Through your visits here, I hope you have gotten to know a few things about me. Things such as how excited I get about the recipes we try. I write about them here because I want to share them with you, but I try not be bossy. I rarely like being unequivocally told what to do and so I assume, neither would you. With most of the recipes, I gently coax you try them, hoping you will enjoy them as we did. I don’t post every meal we eat, but I hope that the recipes we do post are interesting to you. Through either the memory of the meal or its impression off a page, they were interesting to me, and that excites me enough to bring them to you.
For the most part, it is a calm interest, a gentle excitement. Every once in a while though, I come across a recipe that fairly shrieks out to me. Not literally – I know that would be very odd, and probably unsettling – but it captures my attention with just as much alacrity and focus. I cannot rest until I’m cooking it in the kitchen. At times, it turns out that recipe sounded better than it ends up tasting. But this recipe, this is not that kind. This was a time that the dish turned way better than I imagined it.
When I chanced upon this recipe, I had no butter-chicken-making plans in my future. There I was,flicking through my Twitter stream when I saw this re-tweet, claiming to be the best butter chicken ever. I ignore such extreme claims as a rule, since they rarely hold up, so I’m not sure why I checked out the link. But that one click, it introduced me to one of the most enticing chicken recipes ever. The prospect of making this dish proceeded then to insert itself into my every thought with an obstinacy that was baffling. I’d be staring at the intricate floor plan of a hospital and the O-shaped sinks would remind me of onions that would remind me that I wanted to try this. Or I’d be snipping up some marigold in the garden and its sunset orange petals would remind me of the tangerine-coloured gravy of this butter chicken. I had to make this, I needed to make this. I finally stopped ignoring the obvious, stuck the marigold in some water and decided to make this for a weekend dinner. I figured it would be cheaper to cook this and be done with it before the voices in my head drove me to expensive therapy. Boy. Oh. Boy. I am so glad I did.
This butter chicken, it is one of the most amazing, layered dish with complex flavours that you will ever taste. Thank you, voices in my head. You know, really know, what I like.
While it was Indian-Chinese food that turned me into a chicken fan at the impressionable young age of seven, it was when I discovered butter chicken at twelve that I became a chicken evangelist. Making it at home all these years later reminded me of why that was. This is a dish easier to find in restaurants across India, rather than as part of a home-cooked meal. It is lavish and opulent in its use of butter and it was a wonderful occasional treat that I looked forward to with irrepressible excitement. This at-home version of the recipe is exceptional, one that will make you groan in sheer delight at its discovery, and agonize at the thought of having lived without it so long. It is often confused with chicken tikka masala, but butter chicken has much more layered flavour, more butter and little to no cream. Besides, chicken tikka masala is an English invention, said to have been created to cater to the Englishman returned from India who craved the spiced foods and rich sauces of India instead of simply kababs. My guess is it was butter chicken they craved, which spurred their cooks to create a feeble facsimile in a chicken tikka masala. (On a side note, I wish Indian restaurants in the US would stop pretending that the two dishes are one and the same, because they are not.)
The recipe is involved but quite manageable on a weekend when you can work on its stages while tending to other important things like spending time with your children or getting weekend chores done around the house. To begin with, the chicken gets marinated until tender and flavourful, not once but twice, first in lemon juice, then yogurt. It continues on to get seared in a pan, followed by cooking in a gravy befitting its newly minted luxurious state. And the gravy, that gravy is the magic of this recipe. Rich with a bevy of spices and butter, and resplendent with nuts and veggies, this dreamy sauce gets finished with two temperings, one of garlic and another of smoked coal butter. Yes, you read that right. That final touch sends it from something good to something inordinately awesome. The memory of this smoky, velvety gravy will stay with you for days. This is the kind of dish that will have you calling your mom so you can tell her about it. Curb your excitement so you don’t forget about mundane things like time differences and call her at two in the morning, just about giving her a heart-attack. What? No, of course I didn’t do anything like that.
So go on then, dash off to your grocery store for some chicken. Run if you can, or bicycle. The exercise will help. It isn’t called butter chicken without reason. Butter is one of the key ingredients. But what, for me, truly cinches the greatness of this recipe is the prodigious quantities of garlic that go into its making. Oodles of chopped garlic and the flavour it delivers, this I enjoyed more than anything else.
So where was I? Ah yes, go get your chicken. Or use paneer instead. Or broccoli. Or mushrooms. Or extra firm tofu. (I tried this with the tofu but it sort of fell apart a bit. I imagine mushrooms work very well. Portobello would be perfect, but button will do.) Cut it into curry-size pieces and then marinate it for a couple of hours, in a duo of different marinades. The original recipe calls for hung yogurt, but let’s say you forgot to hang your yogurt the earlier night. So you reach with gratitude for the greek yogurt you grabbed on the way out of the grocery store. It will work just fine. While the chicken is marinating, you tie up a bundle of spices, toss them in with some tomatoes, onions, ginger, and that mountain of garlic along with a nice soft helping of butter to constitute a gravy. You sear the marinated chicken, use an immersion blender to whizz the gravy, add said chicken to gravy and then temper the dish twice, once with more garlic, (mo’ garlic, moar garlic. This is my new chant), and then some butter melted over a piece of red-hot coal. You will have the culinary equivalent of alchemy, of turning base ingredients into edible gold. You need nothing else with this, save some roti or rice. It.is.perfect.
A couple of things to consider – Kashmiri chilli powder and regular red chilli powder are different, even though they have similar colour. Kashmiri chilli powder is very mild and is used here primarily for colour while the red chilli powder delivers the heat. A combination of the Kashmiri chilli powder and turmeric will the lovely sunset colour you need.
Don’t use coal briquettes for the coal tadka. They can have things like accelerant in them and are most definitely not for consumption. I used Trader Joe’s hardwood charcoal. Filtering the butter got rid of most of the coal from it. If this part makes you uneasy, don’t add the butter to the gravy but do let the buttery smoke permeate the gravy.
Kasoori Methi and garlic are key to this recipe and there’s a lot of both used. Just go with it. The intrepid young chef who developed this recipe really knows what he is doing, and his recipe is an absolute show stopper.
Koyla (coal) Butter Chicken
adapted very slightly from Saransh Goila’s recipe via Sanjeev Kapoor’s Khazana
Makes 6 to 8 servings
Chicken – about a pound of boneless breast, cut into curry-size pieces
For the first marinade:
Lemon juice – 3 tsp
Chilli Powder – 2 tsp
Ginger paste – 2 tsp
Garlic paste – 4 tsp
Salt – 1 tsp
For the second marinade:
Peppercorns – 5
Cloves – 3
Bay Leaf – 1
Cinnamon stick – 1, about an inch long
Almonds – 20 gms/0.7 oz of almond meal OR 15 peeled almonds
Cardamom powder – 1 tsp
Cumin powder – 2 tbsp
Turmeric Powder – 1/2 tsp
Hung/Greek Yogurt – 3/4 cup
For the gravy:
Tomatoes – 2 pounds, roughly chopped
Onions – 1 pound, roughly chopped
Garlic cloves – 10
Ginger – 1 inch piece, diced fine
Raw Cashews – 50 gms/1.7 oz
Kasoori Methi – 1 tbsp
Turmeric powder – 1/2 tsp
Honey – 2 tbsp
Kashmiri Chilli Powder – 1 tsp
Coriander powder – 3 tbsp
Butter – 5 tbsp
Spice pouch for gravy:
A small length of cheesecloth
Bay Leaf – 1
Cloves – 4
Peppercorns – 5
Cinnamon – 2″
Milk – 2-1/4 cup or 500 ml
Water – 1/2 cup
For the spice tadka:
Garlic – 5 tbsp, very finely chopped
Kashmiri Chilli powder – 1 tsp
Kasuri Methi – 1 tbsp
Oil – 1 tbsp
Butter – 1 tbsp
For the coal tadka:
Natural Hardwood Charcoal – 1 piece
Butter – 1 tbsp
Kasoori Methi – 1 tsp
Cream – 2 tbsp (optional)
Combine the ingredients of the first marinade in a large non-reactive bowl. Add the pieces of chicken and mix. Cover and marinade the chicken for an hour.
- In a small skillet, dry roast the following ingredients from the second marinade on a medium low flame: peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, bay leaf. If using raw almonds, dry roast them along with the spices. If you’re using almond meal, you don’t need to do this. Roast until the spices are fragrant.
- Cool the roasted mix and grind to a powder.
- In a small non-reactive bowl, combine the yogurt with the ground spice mix, cardamom powder, cumin powder and turmeric.
- Add the yogurt mixture to the chicken pieces in the first marinade and mix well to coat them. Marinade in the yogurt mixture for another hour. I placed the chicken in the fridge for the duration of each marination.
- Place a deep pan, non-strick if possible and one with a fitting lid, on a medium flame. You could also use a dutch oven for this.
- Add a turn of oil to the pan. When it shimmers, add the pieces of chicken. The thing to do here is to sear and brown the chicken on all sides, not to cook it through. A couple of minutes on each side ought to do it.
- Once browned, take the chicken off the pan and reserve.
- Create the spice pouch by placing the spices in the pouch and tying up the ends.
- In the bowl of a pressure cooker, combine the tomatoes, onion, ginger, garlic, cashews, kasoori methi, kashmiri chilli powder, coriander powder, turmeric powder, butter, honey and salt to your estimation (add less if you’re unsure, you can add more salt later, but you can’t take it out.)
- Tuck in the spice pouch.
- Pour in the water and half the milk. Cover and pressure cook. In a traditional pressure cooker with removable weight cook for about 25-30 minutes (one whistle, after which you take the weight off and allow to cook further for a total of about half hour). If you have the non-weighted pressure cooker like I do, cook for about 12 minutes after the pressure pin pops up. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, boil contents in a heavy-bottom pot for an hour or so until contents are boiled through.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool.
- Once the cooker is cool enough to handle and the pressure buildup has subsided, open it up. Fish out and discard the spice pouch, then blend the contents of the cooker into a smooth puree, using an immersion blender or in a regular blender.
To assemble the dish:
- Pour the gravy into the deep pan that you seared the chicken in. Place the pan on a medium high flame.
- Add in the chicken and mix well with the gravy.
- Add the remaining milk, stir to incorporate then bring it to a boil. Then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes.
- Move the pan off the heat.
To finish the dish:
- Place the piece of coal on one of your burners and turn on the high flame. Heat the coal for 15 minutes. Or you could heat it on your grill.
- Meanwhile, in a small pan, prepare the spice tadka. To start, melt the butter and oil together on a medium low flame.
- Add the garlic and cook until lightly golden brown. Add the Kashmiri chilli powder and kasoori methi, cook another half a minute, then move off the flame.
- Add some of the gravy to the tempering pan and mix. Then pour the mixture back into the gravy.
- Move the butter chicken pan back to the heat and cook with this added tadka for another 10 minutes.
- Now for the coal tadka, nestle a small steel bowl in the center of the butter chicken pan.
- In this, place the heated piece of coal with a pair of steel tongs. Add a tablespoon of butter over the coal and quickly cover the pan. The coal will start to smoke. Allow the smoke to infuse into the gravy for about 5 minutes.
- Uncover the pan and filter the coal-infused butter into the gravy. I did this by discarding the piece of coal (into my sink first, it was still hot), then filtering the butter through a tea strainer lined with cheesecloth. This held back most of the coal sediment.
- Garnish with the kasoori methi and cream, if using.
Serve hot with rotis, naan or over basmati rice.