In 1980 when I was 10, we lived in the Middle East, and Thursday was the start of the weekend. I'd huddle with Dad in our small galley-style kitchen as he began making butter chicken: a glorious dish of chicken pieces marinated in yogurt, cumin, fenugreek, ginger and garlic, oven-roasted and cooked in a sinful, creamy butter and tomato sauce.
"The first thing is the chicken," he would say. "If the chicken is not of good quality, you can forget the dish. The frozen chicken on the market is no good." Working closely with his butcher — my father still has a closer relationship with his meat vendors than most people have with their doctors — he would pick out the best chicken and have it chopped up his way.
Dad began the marinade in a bowl filled with homemade yogurt in which he swirled his long, slender fingers to gently whip it. "Yogurt is the key. It tenderizes the chicken, it makes it soft," he said. "People forget that."
My father is an engineer by trade. When we were kids and lived in Bahrain, he traveled constantly and was often gone for long periods of time. After a day at school, I'd wait for his return, rather irrationally, by the large windows of our cozy family room each night.
When he finally came home — from Beirut, Dubai, Alabama, Delhi, London, Kuwait or Paris — he brought gifts of unusual foods, such as peanut butter, baked beans with bacon, Lindt chocolates and dates stuffed with pistachios. However, when he asked, "What would you like to eat this weekend?" the answer was always the same: butter chicken.
About The Author
An engineer turned food writer, Monica Bhide writes about food and its effect on our lives. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Prevention, Cooking Light, Health and Self. Her latest book is Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen (Simon & Schuster). Read more at her blog, A Life Of Spice.
After the yogurt came tablespoons of melted clarified butter and a large squeeze of lemon juice, then a slathering of pureed tomatoes. "This is the real butter chicken," he'd say. "I can tell you it tastes like the one from Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Did I ever tell you that is where this dish originated? I will take you there when we are in Delhi next. We can eat and sit outside in the lawns and listen to beautiful ghazals [Urdu poetry]."
As the memories of Moti Mahal filled his mind, he would begin to recite poetry by Indian legends. I understood nothing because I spoke no Urdu, yet his soothing, deep voice kept me entranced as he sang and cut slits into the chicken so the marinade would be absorbed. Then he added the chicken to the marinade, rubbing it until it seemed as though the chicken was born with the mixture on. The chicken needed to marinate overnight. And I needed to go to bed.
The next morning, I would be up with him at 8, ready to go to the market to buy tomatoes for the curry. Years later, when he visited me in the States, he was appalled I went to the grocery store once a week. "You buy tomatoes now for use on Friday? They won't be fresh. What is the point?"
Once after returning from London, Dad did not stop talking about chicken tikka masala — a British version of butter chicken. "It had onions. Who puts onions in butter chicken? I found out that it was originally created using a can of tomato soup? Soup in making butter chicken? Who does that?" The rant took several years to die down.
His messy hands reached out to the spice cabinet for the treasures that made the dish sparkle. "Smell this methi, child, here, smell," he said. "When I was a kid, my mother would make it and it made the whole kitchen smell like paradise. Moti Mahal did not add this to their chicken dish. They should have." I leaned over and pretended to smell the dried herb, which smells like maple syrup, all the while reveling in the precious time with my father.
He'd place the chicken pieces single file on a foil-lined sheet to roast in the oven as we began preparing the sauce. Then he would fish out his ancient grinder. He made me smell the pungent ginger, and he laughed as I scrunched my long nose at the garlic. Both went into the blender with fiery green chilies to make the paste.
It was time to cook. Butter would go into a hot kadai, a large steel wok-shaped pot, as he would regale me with stories of his college days or how he agreed to marry Mom without even seeing her first. In went the paste and the fresh tomatoes. He would stir, pause, analyze, stir and use the back of his spoon to mash the tomatoes. Then he stopped and pulled the roasted chicken from the oven.
"Now is the secret nobody knows," he would say as he pointed to the pan. "This marinade has all the flavors from the spices and the chicken. This is what makes the masala real." He tilted the marinade into the wok. I watched him smile, frown and finally look at peace as the tomatoes cooked to his satisfaction and the oil moved out toward the sides of the wok. Then he added the chicken and cooked it until all the flavors melded.
My job came at the end. I gently cut the side of a plastic pouch of heavy cream and poured it into the chicken. The dish was complete. And it was time to invite everyone to eat.
Years later, my son asked me to make butter chicken for him. Reluctantly, I did. He tasted it and declared, "It is really good, Mom, but his is better." Ah, the relief I felt. I still need my dad to show me how.
A version of this story was previously published in the Washington (D.C.) City Paper.
This is my adaptation of my father's fabulous dish. Serve this with hot steamed rice, or rice and peas (recipe below), or Indian breads such as naan. A beet salad with yogurt would be a nice side dish, then a light granita for dessert.
Makes 4 to 5 servings
For The Chicken
1 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic
2 tablespoons Indian tandoori masala (I recommend Shan brand)
1/4 cup canned tomato puree
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons melted butter or ghee*
8 skinless, bone-in chicken thighs (make slits in the chicken to allow the marinade to penetrate)
Salt, to taste
For The Sauce
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon peeled, grated ginger
1 tablespoon peeled, minced garlic
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
Salt, to taste
1 serrano chile, finely minced
1 teaspoon dried fenugreek leaves*
1/2 cup heavy cream
In a large bowl, mix together the yogurt, ginger, garlic, Indian tandoori masala, tomato puree, salt, lemon juice and butter. Add the chicken and mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the chicken in a single layer in a roasting pan. Pour all remaining marinade over the chicken. Roast 20 to 30 minutes, or until the chicken is cooked and the juices run clear.
Remove the chicken from the oven and place all the pieces on a platter. Reserve the cooked marinade in a bowl.
To make the sauce, in a large skillet, heat the butter over medium heat. Add the ginger and garlic. Saute for about 30 seconds.
Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring constantly. Use the back of a spatula to mash the tomatoes as you go. Continue until the tomatoes are completely mashed and soft, about 10 minutes.
Add the reserved marinade.
Add the salt, chili pepper, fenugreek leaves and chicken and mix well. Simmer covered for about 10 minutes.
Add the cream and simmer for another minute. Serve hot.
*Available at Indian markets.
Rice And Peas
This simple dish is rich in flavor and low on effort. Use your choice of vegetables. I often used mixed vegetables, raisins and nuts for variation.
Rinse the rice 3 to 4 times with water. Drain and set aside.
In a deep pan, heat the vegetable oil on medium heat.
Add the cumin seeds. When they begin to sizzle, add the peas.
Saute for 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the rice and salt. Mix well. Add the water and bring to a rolling boil.
Reduce heat to the lowest setting.
Cover rice with a lid and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until most of the water has evaporated. You will see small craters forming on top of the rice.
Remove from heat. Let sit for about 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving. Serve hot.
Beet Salad With Yogurt
In traditional Indian cooking, beets are either steamed or boiled. I prefer to roast them in the oven. I find that this releases their true flavor. If you can find different colored beets, it makes for a prettier salad, but red beets taste just fine. A note about the dressing: When you begin to drizzle it on the beets, it will seem like a lot of dressing. Drizzle a bit, wait a few minutes, and then drizzle some more. The beets will absorb the dressing. Also, there is about a tablespoon of extra dressing, since I find many people ask for more of this dressing once they begin eating the salad. This is adapted from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster 2009).
Simon & Schuster
Makes 4 servings
4 medium beets, different colors if possible, trimmed
1⁄2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/8 teaspoons salt, divided
1 tablespoon ground coriander
3⁄4 cup plain, whole-milk yogurt, stirred
1⁄4 teaspoon peeled, minced fresh ginger
1⁄2 teaspoon sugar
Cilantro, to garnish
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Wash the beets well and pat them dry.
In a medium bowl, combine the pepper, oil, 1 teaspoon salt and coriander. Add the beets and mix well.
Place the beets on a large piece of aluminum foil and wrap tightly, ensuring that they stay in a single layer. Make sure the package is tightly closed to keep the steam inside as the beets cook. (If you are using different colors of beets, wrap each color separately.)
Discard any remaining marinade. Place the foil packets on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for about 50 minutes, until the beets are cooked through (they will be easily pierced with a knife).
Remove beets from foil. The skin should easily peel off with your fingers or a paring knife. To protect hands from getting stained, you may want to rub off their skins with paper towels, or wear gloves. (The spice marinade may have concentrated itself on parts of a beet. If so, gently scrape it off.) Cut beets into wedges, and arrange on four individual salad plates.
Place the yogurt, ginger, sugar and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt in a bowl. Whisk to combine. If you prefer a thinner dressing, add a little water. Drizzle a bit of dressing on beets, wait a few minutes, then drizzle some more. The beets will absorb the dressing. Garnish with cilantro and serve immediately.
Shaved ice desserts are common on the streets of India. This is a bit different, both in flavor and presentation. Rooh afza, which translates to "that which nurtures the soul," is a popular syrup for making drinks and can be found in any Indian grocery store or online. If you are not serving this to children, add a touch of vodka for an extra zing. Rooh afza is very sweet and does not require additional sugar. I like the contrast of the lemon in this dish. You can use a flavored syrup, such as rosewater, as well. This recipe, adapted from Modern Spice by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster 2009), requires advance freezing time.
Makes 6 servings
6 tablespoons rooh afza
2 tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups water
1/4 cup vodka (optional)
Fresh mint leaves for garnish
Combine the rooh afza, lemon juice and water in a saucepan and mix well to completely dissolve the syrup. Bring to a gentle boil, then remove from heat immediately and allow to cool.
If you are adding the vodka, do so now.
Pour the mixture into a wide, shallow pan and put it in the freezer.
Once the mixture begins to form ice crystals, stir it with a fork and repeat the stirring every hour. It will take about 6 hours to set.
When ready to serve, use a fork to break up the ice crystals and spoon into attractive glasses or cups. Garnish with a fresh mint leaf.