Mumbai to Brooklyn by way of Hyderabad: Butter Chicken & Brooklyn Raga Massive


Eats: Butter Chicken (aka Murgh Makhani)
Tunes: Brooklyn Raga Massive
Fun Fact(s): Interesting origins; eating with fingers

Intro

When asked which Indian dish we should prepare for friends, the kids nearly always choose Butter Chicken (aka Murgh Makhani).  Note, however, that the home version DOESN’T COMPARE to the soupy, unnaturally reddish-orange version you might find in US restaurants.  This home-style butter chicken is heavy on onions and tomatoes which disappear into the velvety butter, cashew and garam masala curry (or ‘gravy,’ as we would say in India).  It’s not spicy, but it IS flavorful and a crowd-pleaser so long as you don’t have any cashew allergies among you!

It was also the dish that I taught in my first home-style Indian cooking class, giving me a good reason to finally write the measurements and process down.  The photo is from the recipe test, where both student and teacher made it according to what we had written in the first class, allowing us to tweak the recipe.

 

Eats Origins

Like most great comfort foods, this was born out of leftovers.  Apparently a Punjabi chef mixed leftover tandoori-cooked chicken in a tomato broth along with butter and cream.  The version my husband grew up with in Hyderabad replaced the cream with cashew, and saw the chicken cooked in the curry/gravy itself.

The below version is further adapted from my mother/sister-in-law recipes I scrawled out in 2007. Here, credit is due to my supertaster (and brutally honest) husband and kids.  🙂

 

Fun Facts

Perhaps an ambassador in training, our 4 year old son delights in telling new diners around our table about eating with our hands.  He’ll of course demonstrate with whatever we are eating, and depending on our guests’ upbringing, sometimes it takes them a bit to decide to try it.  One 5 year old last year, likely brought up with strict French table manners, was so tentative the look on her face made me wonder if she thought it was a trick, and whether she might get in trouble when her parents found out.

My husband likes to tell people that eating with ones’ hands makes the food taste better because it is like a 6 sense, adding to the flavor and sensation of the eating experience.  I’ve also read that it has an Ayurvedic nature to it because the fingers essentially make a powerful mudra when scooping the food and bringing it to the mouth.

From a practical point of view, using ones finger helps in 2 ways: as a temperature tester to prevent burned mouths, and as a whole spice or bone finder.  Whole spices are used quite often in Indian cooking, and while the flavor they impart is lovely, it’s never fun to bite into some cinnamon bark, or star anise, or my least favorite to bite: cardamom.  I LOVE the flavor of cardamom and use it in all sorts of dishes… but when I bite into one in a curry I am not a happy camper.

In fact, Indian homes are designed to support this custom: there is usually a sink in the dining room because it is important to wash ones’ hands before and after eating.  Though both hands are washed, only the right hand should be used for eating because the left is considered dirty).

If you haven’t before, give it a try!   If eating with bread, rip a small piece and use it to grab a bit of curry.  If eating with rice, use fingertips and thumb to combine rice and curry, then close the tips of your fingers around the desired bite (fingers remain unbent).  Then bring the bite to your mouth with a bit of a twist in the wrist.  Ooh! which reminds me: I must include a video from the amazing “Stop Eating it Wrong” series:

 

Tunes

I’ve paired this meal with Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM) because just as this meal (and most that you’ll find on this site) has deep roots, it has been enriched by applying additional influences tastes.  And also: BROOKLYN!

Brooklyn Raga Massive describe themselves as “a collective of forward thinking musicians rooted in and inspired by Indian classical music,” and they keep getting better and better.  A jam session is always fun, but their weekly BRM jazz sessions are quite literally out of this world.   The range of global musicians, instruments and styles, and the pure beauty that results is breathtaking and for me no less then spiritual.  I don’t mean to be hyperbolic; it’s just that good.

And actually it’s probably the musical equivalent of my drawings:  taking a bunch of seemingly disparate shapes, putting them together via a prescribed but open structure and let the integrity of each blend into new, delightful whole.  But I digress….  Enjoy!

 

Recipe

Time:  1 hr, mostly chopping
Servings: 10, with rice/rotis

Ingredients (in order of process appearance)

  • 1.5 cups finely chopped onions
  • 3 cups finely chopped tomatoes
  • 4 tbsp. butter
  • 1 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1.5 tbsp. cumin seeds
  • 10-15 curry leaves
  • 2 tbsp. garam masala
  • 1 cup raw cashews, ground to a powder
  • salt to taste
  • 2 lbs chicken thighs, trimmed and cut into 1 inch or bite sized pieces (including bones if ya got ’em)
  • 1.5 cups water
  • (optional: chopped cilantro for garnish)
  • accompaniment: traditionally with roti/chapati but we often enjoy it with white basmati rice.

Process

  1. Finely chop onions and tomatoes.
  2. Heat large, heavy-bottomed pain to medium, melt 4 tbsp. butter and then add 1 tsp vegetable oil.
  3. Add cumin and fry cumin till fragrant.
  4. Add onions and fry till golden brown, adding curry leaves toward the end.
  5. Add garam masala and stir till mixed in.
  6. Add tomatoes, and scrape up any browned bits on the pan using the juices of the tomato.
  7. Cook the tomatoes for a while until they begin to breakdown and blend w/ onions.
  8. Add the cashew powder and fry for a bit.
  9. Add water and chicken and cook until chicken is cooked, careful to not overcook the chicken.
  10. For best results allow to rest for a bit, even overnight.

Tips

  • It helps to chop the tomatoes and onions before everything else.  The chicken you can clean/chop once onions start cooking.
  • The more finely you chop the onions and tomatoes, the more quickly they will cook, and the smoother your curry (without pureeing it, which personally I don’t like in this dish). I have tried a food processor for chopping and I don’t love it, particularly for the tomatoes which seem to become almost beaten, even when using the pulse setting.
  • One shortcut I’ve been using lately is to use a potato masher as it cooks… not yet sure I recommend, per se but it’s helpful to speed things along and We’ve yet to notice a difference in taste… only an improvement in time to cook/combine.

 

Enjoy! And if you try it, please let us know what you thought via comments.

As promised, a fav BRM video: