Friday, October 24, 2014

A Festive Diwali Dish: Indian Butter Chicken

Diwali, also known as Deepawali or the 'Festival of Lights', is an ancient Hindu festival celebrated in autumn every year, and signifies the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. The festival typically extends over a five day period, but the main festival night of Diwali coincides with the darkest, new moon night of the Hindu lunar month Kartika, which in the Gregorian calendar falls between mid-October and mid-November. While the reason for celebrating the 'Festival of Lights' is deeply embedded in Hindu mythology, people of all religions celebrate — it’s a time for family, good food, lighting lamps and candles, enjoying fireworks and revelling in the spirit of togetherness, and what could be more important?

Oil lamps are traditionally used during Diwali – the festival of lights — to lighten up the house and welcome the Gods into the household, asking for prosperity, wealth, happiness and good luck 

One of my favourite festive Indian dishes is Murgh Makhani, also known as Butter Chicken. There are many ways of making this recipe but the basic principles remain the same: marinating the chicken overnight in a yogurt and a spice mixture, usually garam masala, ginger-garlic paste, lemon juice, coriander, cumin, turmeric and chili. The chicken, although traditionally cooked in a tandoor, can also be grilled, roasted or pan fried. The sauce is then prepared by heating ghee, tomato purée, and various spices, very often including cumin, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, and fenugreek. Cashew paste can also be added, which I like to do, which makes the sauce thicker, richer and more luscious. Of all the spices added to the dish it's dried fenugreek leaves, or kasuri methi, that makes the greatest contribution to the characteristic flavour of Murgh Makhani. Once the sauce is prepared, the chicken is added to the sauce and warmed through and then garnished with ghee, fresh cream, cilantro or kasuri methi, for a classic Indian dish perfect for celebrating Diwali.

Murgh Makhani: Indian Butter Chicken
Serves 4

Chicken & Marinade:
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.

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