Butter Chicken (Murgh Makhani)
Butter chicken, also known as “murgh makhana”, is the most searched Indian dish on the internet. And I get it. Like chicken Tikka Masala, butter chicken is considered one of the most popular, cross-continental Indian dishes throughout the world, even in places you would least expect it. This is not surprising at all. Tender, golden chicken in a rich, flavorful butter sauce, served with rice or naan, what’s not to love? This iconic tandoori chicken dish has a lovely aromatic sauce with a silky texture unlike any other, and I adore it. This recipe is extremely popular in my house and besides for the prep-ahead marinade, it’s actually rather easy to make.
The Invention of Butter Chicken
Butter chickens’ invention remains somewhat debated. There are two families that claim it’s invention. Before the partition of India and Pakistan, Kundan Lal Gujral made tandoori chicken in a dhaba in Peshawar in the 1920s. After independence, he opened a restaurant, Moti Mahal, in Daryaganj with two partners. At that time, refrigerating leftovers was not an option. Gujral didn’t want to be wasteful, so he experimented with dried pieces of chicken, adding tomatoes, butter, and some masalas to the gravy and thus the creation of the famous butter chicken.
According to Raghav Jaggi, a descendant of one of the partners, it was Jaggi’s grandfather Kundan Lal Jaggi who invented this famous dish. Jaggi was working at Mahal Moti restaurant, and he came up with butter chicken in Delhi when a big group of refugees came to the restaurant, and he didn’t have enough tandoori chicken to feed them all. So, he whipped up the gravy and added tandoori chicken to it, to stretch it, to feed all the refugees. Story versions aside, Moti Mahal would go on to become one of the most iconic restaurants populating tandoori cuisine and butter chicken to this day.
Butter + Cream
The name butter chicken often confuses people. Is butter chicken a curry or something else? The answer is–both. Because this dish has evolved into a widely popular dish, it’s not always easy to pin down its characteristics. Traditionally the chicken is cooked in a tandoor oven, but modern recipes have moved away from this. The flavorful marinade typically consists of cumin, turmeric, garlic, and ginger, as well as yogurt to help tenderize it. The flavorful sauce is made from tomato, butter (or ghee), and cream, but there are numerous variations out there.
The amount of butter and cream used to make butter chicken can really fluctuate a lot. Many recipes actually call for several sticks of butter. My version is a bit healthier. I use a lot less butter without sacrificing flavor. Perhaps the most important ingredient I learned, is kasoori methi (fenugreek seeds), a clover-like herb with a nutty flavor, so don’t skip it. Flavor profile-wise, my butter chicken is only a little spicy, with just a touch of sweetness, creating the perfect balance. This dish is considered a comfort food in India and beyond so here’s a version of it you can make at home, that does not involve a tandoori oven and it’s just as delicious.