Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Murgh Makhani: Luscious Indian Butter Chicken

Murgh Makhani, also known as Butter Chicken, is my absolute favourite Indian dish, and one I always order when dining out at Indian restaurants anywhere in the world. Rich, buttery and creamy, the recipe is actually a dual recipe: one of Tandoori Chicken and Makhani Gravywhich comes from the word 'makhan' - Punjabi for butter. Called Murg Makhani in Hindi, Butter Chicken was invented by Kundan lal Gujral, the founder of Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi. 

Kundan Lal Gujral with Indira Ghandi. Gujral was an innovator in Indian cuisine, 
and his Moti Mahal restaurant became a legend in its own lifetime

Famed for creating Tandoori Chicken — he was the first to bake chicken in a tandoor he also invented Makhani gravy, "the mother of North Indian gravies", thus transforming Tandoori Chicken into delicious Butter Chicken, the unwavering star of the Moti Mahal repertoire. Legend has it that the cooks used leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. This sauce was then mixed with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces, and the rest is culinary history, for Kundan not only changed the face of Indian cooking but also put Indian food on the international gourmet map. 

"The real deal" — Butter Chicken from Moti Mahal in Delhi

The Moti Mahal Cookbook, written by Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal's grandson.

Although there are many variations of making Butter Chicken, the basic principles are marinating the chicken overnight in a yogurt and spice mixture, usually garam masala, ginger-garlic paste, lemon or lime juice, coriander, cumin, turmeric and chili. The chicken, traditionally cooked in a tandoor, can also be grilled, roasted or pan fried. The sauce is made by heating and mixing ghee or butter, tomato purée, and various spices, very often including cumin, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, fenugreek and fresh cream.

A traditional Indian copper-plated serving bowl - a kadhai -
available at Kohinoor Kitchenware, 1443 Gerrard East, Toronto

Cashew paste can also be added, and will make the gravy thicker and more luscious. Of all the spices added to the dish it is dried fenugreek leaves, or kasuri methi, that makes the greatest contribution to the characteristic flavour of the dish. Once the sauce is prepared, the chicken is added to the gravy warmed through until it has all blended, and then garnished with ghee, fresh cream, cilantro or kasuri methi, for an authentic Murgh Makhani. Yum-yum.

Murgh Makhani: Indian Butter Chicken
Serves 4

1 lb chicken thighs, boned and skinless

1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1 tbsp fresh garlic, minced
1/2 tsp cardamom powder

1 tsp dried fenugreek leaves - kasuri methi
1 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp lemon juice
1-1/2 cup Greek yoghurt
1 tbsp canola oil
1/2 tsp garam masala powder
1 tbsp gram flour (chickpea flour)
2 tsp turmeric powder
2 tsp salt
3 tbsp melted ghee or butter

Makhani Masala Sauce:
2 yellow onions, finely chopped
2 tbsp fresh grated ginger
1 tbsp fresh garlic, finely minced 

1 tsp fenugreek seeds - methi
15 cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
1 tsp chili powder
1 cup tomato purée 
2 tbsp ghee or butter, or to taste
3 tbsp heavy cream, or to taste
salt to taste
1 bunch fresh cilantro, washed and chopped for garnish

Cut the boneless chicken thighs into large bite-size pieces and pat dry. In a large bowl, combine the yoghurt, ginger, garlic, cardamom, fenugreek leaves, chili powder, garam masala, oil, gram flour, lemon juice and salt, and mix well to form a thick consistency. Add the chicken pieces to the mixture and let marinate, covered and refrigerated overnight, or for at least 4-5 hours.

Meanwhile, soak the coarsely chopped cashews in some warm water to cover, for about 45 minutes. Then drain and process in a blender, adding 1 tablespoon of water at a time as needed, to make a smooth paste; cover and set aside.

Pre-heat oven to 400°F. Place the chicken pieces on a foil lined baking tray and cook 10 minutes. Turn the chicken pieces over and baste with melted ghee, cooking an additional 10 minutes until chicken is nicely browned.

In a large skillet, add the chopped onions and fry 30 - 40 minutes, until they're golden brown and well caramelized. Add the fenugreek seeds, and when they start to sizzle, add the ginger-garlic paste and fry, sprinkling a little water now and then as necessary, until the oil separates. Add the cashew paste, chili powder, tomato purée and cook 10 minutes. Season with salt to taste. I often purée the mixture at this point, to make an extra silky and smooth sauce, but it's not absolutely necessary.

To finish, add the butter, cream and chicken. Mix well and cook over low heat until warmed through. The Butter Chicken can now sit covered over low heat for a while, or taken off the heat and gently re-warmed when ready to serve. Spoon the Butter Chicken into a large bowl, preferably a 'Kadhai', a traditional Indian copper-plated bowl, and garnish with a splash of cream and fresh cilantro or Kasari Methi. Serve over basmati rice with lovely warm Naan bread or crispy pappadam on the side.

Aged basmati rice garnished with lemon zest and cilantro

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