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Where Did Butter Chicken Originate?
Legend has it that butter chicken comes to us from pre-partition India in Peshawar, where it was invented by a man named Kundan Lal Gujral—who is also credited with inventing tandoori chicken. Gujral worked for a shop-owner named Mokha Singh. When Singh got sick, he sold the shop to his young employee, who eventually renamed it Moti Mahal.
Gujral found that his signature tandoori chicken, made by first marinating skinless chicken in plain yogurt and spices before roasting it in a traditional clay tandoor oven, dried out too easily as it hung unsold above the heat of the ovens all day, so he came up with a plan: to avoid wasting the precious spiced chicken, they’d serve the meat in a basic tomato gravy, silky with butter and cream, which would infuse it with moisture and make its spicy flavors softer and more subtle. After the partition in 1945, Gujral and his fellow restaurateurs packed up for Delhi, set up Moti Mahal once more, and the two dishes took off.
Some sources say the invention of butter chicken was a mistake, not a clever culinary improvisation, but the exact details are irrelevant: Butter chicken still reigns supreme in Indian restaurants and home kitchens across the globe.
What Spices Are In Indian Butter Chicken?
The best butter chicken is creamy, not oily, and not too sweet. Spices may include:
- A healthy amount of chili powder
The goal here is balance, so try to find a middle-ground. The spice in butter chicken, unlike other Indian dishes, is more of an ensemble player rather than the main focus.
4 Tips for Making Perfect Indian Butter Chicken
- Instead of heavy cream, try coconut milk as an equally creamy, dairy-free substitute.
- Don’t toss out the butter though: it makes the sauce nice and glossy and gives the chicken a gorgeous flavor.
- You can make butter chicken without marinating the chicken first (simply brown the chicken in the pan with the spices and onions), but marinating will get you closer to the succulent meat of the original
- No tandoor oven or any other special equipment is required. You can absolutely cook butter chicken using the regular pots and pans you have on hand.
Easy Indian Butter Chicken Recipe
Prep Time5 hr
Total Time6 hr
- 2 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts/skinless chicken thighs, cubed
- 2 tsp chili powder
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 cup Plain yogurt or Greek yogurt
- 6 tbsp butter (2 tbsp melted)
- 2 tbsp garlic paste
- ½ tsp turmeric
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper
- 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 14 oz can tomato sauce
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup water
- Salt and pepper
- Place chicken in a glass dish or bowl with lemon juice, chili powder, and a good pinch of salt. Toss to coat chicken entirely; cover dish and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
- Combine yogurt, garlic paste, turmeric, butter, and oil in a medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Pour yogurt mixture over chicken, replace cover, and return to refrigerator for another 3 to 4 hours.
- Preheat oven to 400°F.
- Place chicken on skewers. Place skewers in a 9x13 inch baking dish and bake for 20 minutes at this high heat, until almost cooked through.
- Meanwhile, melt 2 tbsp of butter in a large pot, then add the onion, garam masala, remaining teaspoon of chili powder, cumin, ginger, garlic, cayenne, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Cook until fragrant.
- Add the tomato sauce and bring to a simmer. Add the water and cream, bring to a simmer once more.
- Transfer the chicken to the pot, cover, and simmer for another 10-15 minutes, until chicken is cooked through.
- Stir in the last 2 tablespoons of butter and season to taste.
Serve garnished with fresh cilantro, alongside basmati rice.