The best, BEST, butter chicken I ever had was at a hole in the wall in Toronto’s Little India neighbourhood. I don’t remember the name of the place, but I’m sure if I ever walk past it again I will recognize its greasy windows. Set up like a cafeteria, you wait in an unruly line of hungry patrons to place your order and muscle your way past the screaming children hopped up on gulab jabun to squeeze into a red, sauce-stained booth. Served in little Styrofoam bowls with completely inadequate plastic cutlery, it was divinity in disposable dishes.
I always imagined that such deliciousness would be unattainable at home and should be left to the professionals and grandmothers, but I came across a recipe in Longer Hollow Legs’ (= boyfriend) mother’s cookbook of slow cooker dishes. Now that I live in the prairies and can’t drop in to Toronto’s India whenever I like, it feels like a good time to warm the spirits and coat the insides with a little homemade murgh makhani.
I modified the recipe’s instructions to be made in a sauté pan, only because it fit into my schedule better than slow cooking it. The quantities have been tweaked from the original recipe, to maximize flavourful sauce production, as that is the indisputable joy at the center of this dish. I also puréed my own cashews instead of using cashew butter, just because I had whole cashews and didn’t feel like buying the butter.
Serves 2 hungry people with leftovers, or 4 people with modest appetites.
1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp ghee or sunflower oil
2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp each ground coriander, cumin and turmeric
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1-2 dried chiles or 1/2 tsp chile powder (optional)
good sprinkle of salt
3 big tbsp tomato paste
1 cup chicken broth or water
1/3 cup cashew (or almond) butter, or 1/3 cups cashews soaked in 1/4 cup water overnight
1-1.5 lb chicken meat pieces, cut into medium-sized chunks or left whole (boobs, thighs, whatever. Bone and skin inclusion is up to you. I personally prefer dark meat. The Indian Greasy Spoon place was bone-in, skin-on drumsticks, so let that be your guiding light.)
1 cup sour cream or full-fat yoghurt
a small handful fresh cilantro, chopped roughly
In a large sauté pan, cook the onion and garlic in the ghee/oil until it starts to soften and grow translucent. Add the ginger, sugar, spices, salt, tomato paste, broth/water, nut butter (or ground nuts with soaking water). Take the pan off the heat and using an immersion blender, purée everything until the big chunks are gone. This step is necessary if you use whole cashews, and not necessary if you buy pre-made nut butter, but I like to do it to get the sauce smooth like buttah (oh yeah). Add the chicken meat and a little extra water if the meat is not covered with sauce, and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium and simmer until the meat is cooked – how long this takes will depend on the size of your meat…so probably about 15-20 minutes for medium-sized chunks, 30-40 minutes for whole pieces of drumsticks and thighs. Stir in the sour cream and garnish with cilantro. Serve with plain, fluffy basmati rice and bask in heavenly aromas.