Since writing about face masks and hand sanitizers, things escalated rather quickly. Now it isn’t just about avoiding destinations where it is more likely to catch the blasted virus, because no such places exist. But while we’re home bound, we can still reminisce about the food we enjoyed during trips over the past year and try to recreate them at home.
Inspired by the butter chicken at Al Reem, a restaurant in Chiang Mai that serves South Asian and Middle Eastern food, our version uses meat from drumsticks and thighs. Right, we’re not fans of chicken breast meat at home.
But what is butter chicken? Isn’t 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 — chicken roasted in a tandoor, a cylindrical clay oven pretty much similar to the ones used by the people behind Earthen Jar Roast Pork.
Since we don’t own a tandoor, we had to resort to what we have — an oven. My daughter, Alex, made this butter chicken. She marinated chicken drumsticks and fillets with traditional Indian spices and yogurt, roasted the chicken in the oven then made the sauce where the deboned chicken was braised.
Then, to reproduce the entire Al Reem experience for her father, we had the butter chicken with paratha, that delightful Indian flatbread, which we tore and used to scoop the lovely sauce. And, to help us digest the rich dish, there was Thai tea. That was lunch on February 12, 2020 according to the EXIF data of my camera, more than a month before #stayhome and #socialdistancing.
- 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
- ¼ cup butter
- ½ cup chopped onion
- 1 cup diced tomatoes (canned is okay)
- 1 ½ cups cream
- salt to taste
- sugar to taste
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 (see notes after the recipe).
- Transfer the butter chicken to a serving bowl and top with cilantro. Serve with rice or paratha.
If you cooked this dish and you want to share your masterpiece, please use your own photos and write the cooking steps in your own words.