Step Out of Your Cooking Comfort Zone

indian butter chicken

By Bill Turner

Some of the world’s greatest cuisine comes from various regions of Asia. In Central Asia there’s Chinese; Southeast Asia is home to Thai and Indonesian; and in South Asia you’ll find Indian cuisine. On almost any list of the best cuisine on the planet, the top four spots include Chinese and Indian along with Italian and French. Typically French cuisine is No. 1.

Most of us spend too little time on the great Asian recipes. In some cases, we have trouble finding and understanding the ingredients, but mostly we are afraid to step out of our comfort zone. A good way to start experimenting with Asian cuisines is to try an easy to make classic that is not too dissimilar to American or European dishes. Indian butter chicken is a perfect candidate; not too spicy with tomatoes and chicken as the main ingredients.

This is the most popular dish in India as well as one of the most popular recipes in the world. I’m guessing there is not one of the 1.4 billion Indians who haven’t eaten this dish. After you give it a try, you’ll understand why.

Key ingredients make all the difference.

This recipe will introduce you to two of my favorite ingredients in Indian cooking. The first is garam masala, which, like curry powder is a mixture of spices. Garam masala contains nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, cumin and black pepper. Notice that there is nothing spicy or hot in the mix, but rather it gives a slightly sweet tone to a dish. Garam masala is available at Sentry Foods or Penzey’s Spices, a Wisconsin company, and maybe the best source for spices. (There are several southeastern Wisconsin locations — one as close as Janesville — or you can order online at Penzeys.com.)

The second key ingredient is ginger garlic paste. This is a key element of many Indian dishes and you should make your own since it’s sometimes hard to find. It stores forever in the refrigerator. If you can peel ginger and garlic and have a food processor or blender, it’s easy to make. The instructions below will produce more than you need for our Indian butter chicken recipe, but you can refrigerate or freeze the extra amount, since you will, I assure you, make this dish again. You can also use ginger-garlic paste with almost any vegetable like green beans or broccoli.

Ginger Garlic Paste

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz. peeled garlic 4 oz. fresh ginger Olive oil

(If you don’t have a kitchen scale, four ounces is about 1⁄2 cup. A kitchen scale is really handy to have. You can find a variety on Amazon for not a lot of money. I recommend the Eat Smart Precision Pro Digital Kitchen Scale — available for roughly $20.)

Directions:

  • Break the ginger apart into manageable pieces and use a vegetable peeler to remove the outside skin and any fibrous parts.
  • Peel the garlic cloves.
  • Roughly chop the garlic and ginger and put into a food processor.
  • Turn the food processor on and slowly add olive oil until youget a thick paste. Finish at high speed to blend thoroughly.
  • Store in a freezer safe container.

Indian Butter Chicken

Time Required: 1 hour for prep, 1 hour for cooking
Servings: 12 or three meals for a family of four.
Freezes beautifully in quart containers.

The Chicken

Ingredients:

  • 3 lbs. chicken breasts or thighs cut into 1⁄2 inch cubes. (Hint: partially frozen makes the chicken easier to cut into cubes.)
  • 3 Tbsp. peanut oil
  • 1 Tbsp. garam masala1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper

Directions:

  • In a large skillet or frying pan, heat the oil and garam masala over medium heat, stirring frequently.
  • Add the salt and pepper to the chicken and stir well.
  • Add the cubed chicken to the frying pan, stir well to coat and brown for about 7-8 minutes until chicken is golden brown.
  • Turn heat off and let chicken rest.

The Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 3 Tbsp. peanut oil
  • 6 Tbsp. butter
  • 1 1⁄2 cups shallots, finely chopped
  • 1 1⁄2 cups onion, finely chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 3 Tbsp. ginger-garlic paste (See recipe above.) 1 Tbsp. garam masala
  • 1 Tbsp. chili powder
  • 1 Tbsp. ground cumin
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 cup plain whole milk yogurt
  • 3 cups half-and-half
  • 1, 28-oz. can tomato purée
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 1⁄2 cup of water
  • 3 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • 1⁄4 cup chopped cilantro or parsley

Directions:

  • In a large saucepan or stockpot, heat the peanut oil and butter over medium heat.
  • Add the shallots and onion and sauté until softened. Add the lemon juice, ginger-garlic paste, garam masala, chili powder, ground cumin, salt, pepper and bay leaves.
  • Stir well and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the tomato puree, yogurt and half-and-half. Stir well. Reduce heat and gently simmer uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring frequently.
  • Mix the cornstarch and water, add to the sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  • Add the cooked chicken to the sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes.
  • Serve with jasmine or basmati rice; garnish with parsley or cilantro.

The final result should be a thick sauce. If too thin, gently simmer uncovered to reduce and thicken. Many versions of Indian butter chicken call for 1⁄2 to 1 tsp. of cayenne. That adds a lot of spice quickly, if you feel the need. I actually like it better without the heat. This dish is almost a meal in itself, but it also goes well with any green vegetable like green beans or broccoli.

The Perfect Side

Indian butter chicken is often served with an Indian flatbread such as naan or roti. The latter is quicker and easier to make because it uses baking powder instead of yeast to make the bread rise.

In the U.S. you can buy self-rising flour, which is simply flour with baking powder and salt. In the recipe below for roti, I’ll give you the directions for making your own self-rising flour — it’s easy — it takes all of a minute. (See page 109 for more information about self-rising flour.)

Homemade Roti

Time required: 30 minutes | Servings: 12

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups flour
  • 6 tsp. (or 2 Tbsp.) baking powder
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 1⁄2 cups warm water
  • 4 Tbsp. vegetable or olive oil
  • 1⁄2 cup olive or vegetable oil for brushing

Directions:

  • Mix the flour, baking powder and salt together in a bowl. Stir well.
  • Add the oil and water, stir together briefly and gather the dough together in your hands and knead for about five minutes until it is smooth, elastic and slightly warm.
  • Divide the dough into 12 equal balls. Put them back into the bowl, cover and let rest until ready to use. If it’s going to be more than an hour, put them in the fridge. Just remember to get them out in time to warm up to room temperature.
  • If you have a griddle on the top of your stove, it will come in handy for making roti because you can do two or three at a time. If not, use your largest frying pan. Turn heat to medium-high but reduce if the roti starts to burn.
  • Roll out each ball into about an 8” x 10” oval, brush olive oil on both sides and put on the grill or into the frying pan. Cook 1-2 minutes on each side until golden brown. You will see the baking powder do its job.
  • Put finished breads in a basket that’s lined with a cloth that’s large enough to cover the roti to keep them warm.

Try these recipes and launch into a new Indian food adventure.