I am tempted to name this recipe “Better Than Butter Chicken” in a shameless attempt to go viral. This would be generically appropriate—it too is a creamy chicken curry involving tomatoes and dairy. It would also be accurate—it is better than butter chicken. Big talk? In a world that identifies Indian food with butter chicken, yes. But make it and apologize for doubting me.
As I noted on Twitter a few days ago, this was the first dish I learned to make really well when I started cooking in earnest in the early-mid 1990s after starting graduate school in the US. The original dish is a chicken curry that was part of my mother’s dinner party repertoire. She’d packed me off to the US with a collection of hand-written recipes and sent me many more over the years but this was never one of them. I recreated the first versions of this from memory before finally arriving at the broad contours within which it now resides. By which I mean that home cooking is never exact or nailed down. Recipes, when written down, seem more fixed than they usually are in practice but there’s always at least a bit of variation when you make dishes over and over again. My own version of this curry is now different from both my first iterations in the 1990s and from my mother’s but it’s very much in the same family (in fact, when she visits she always asks me to make it for her and my father). I encourage you to add your own twists to it after first trying it as outlined below.
The key to this dish is the interplay between heat (bright heat from the chilli powder and a more floral heat from the Thai chillies), sweetness (from tomatoes, raisins and jaggery/brown sugar) and sourness (from tomatoes and yogurt). The interplay and balance between these aspects is very important. The yogurt also makes it creamy but it’s the tang it imparts that lifts this curry up above the relatively one-dimensional butter chicken. The whole garam masala infuses the sauce without dominating it and there are only a few other powdered spices used to anchor the dish. You might be tempted to add more but it’s really not necessary. It’s a relatively simple preparation but it has a big, complex and rich flavour. There’s only one tricky bit and that involves the addition of the yogurt. It’s the last step and you want to be a bit careful because you don’t want the yogurt to split. Beating it well at room temperature and adding it a bit at a time off the heat should prevent that.
- 1 large chicken, skinned and cut into 8-10 pieces.
- The following whole garam masala: 5 pods green cardamom, 5 cloves, 2 1 inch pieces of cinnamon, 2 tez patta/dried cassia leaves.
- 1.5 cups pungent onion of choice (each onion cut in half and cut into slices neither too thick nor too thin)
- 1 tbspn worth of garlic + 1 tblspn worth of ginger made into a thick paste with a bit of water.
- The following powdered together: 1 tblspn cumin seeds, 1 tblspn coriander seeds, 1 tspn fenugreek seeds.
- 1 tspn haldi/turmeric powder.
- 1 heaped tblspn of the hottest red chilli powder you can handle.
- 1.5-2 cups chopped tomato.
- 1 tblspn jaggery or brown sugar.
- 2 tblspns golden raisins.
- 1 cup plain full-fat yogurt, brought to room temperature and beaten well.
- 5-7 Thai chillies, slit lengthwise.
- 4 tblspns mustard oil (or use grapeseed or similar).
- 1 tblspn chopped dhania/cilantro.
- Heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan that can hold all the chicken pieces in one layer.
- When the oil shimmers (if using mustard oil, when it begins to smoke), add the whole garam masala.
- As soon as they become fragrant—a matter of seconds—add the onions and saute till nicely browned around the edges.
- Add the ginger-garlic paste and saute for another minute or so.
- Add all the ground spices and saute for another minute.
- Add the chicken, mix in thoroughly and saute for 5-7 minutes or so, stirring often to make sure nothing scorches.
- Add the tomatoes, raisins, salt and sugar, mix in thoroughly and saute, stirring often, till the tomatoes have broken down and oil begins to separate.
- Cover the pan and cook over medium-low heat till the chicken is almost done (20-30 minutes depending on the chicken).
- Uncover the pan, take it off the heat and swirl the beaten yogurt in a few tblspns at a time.
- Return the pan to the heat, add the slit Thai chillies, cover the pan and cook for another 10 minutes.
- Uncover the pan and, stirring often, cook for another 7-10 minutes or till the chicken is tender and the sauce is thickened but still pourable.
- Taste for salt, garnish with the cilantro and serve with chapatis/parathas or steamed basmati rice.
- You don’t want the sauce to dry up but you also don’t want it to be thin. There needs to be enough of it to comfortably eat it mixed with rice if you go that route but it should also be thick enough to be mopped up with a paratha out of a bowl with no need for a spoon. In Bengali we’d describe the consistency as “maakha-maakha”, for which, I guess, it would be a fair translation to say the sauce should cling to the chicken.
- I’m not someone who insists that Indian food needs to be hot; in many of my recipes I advise turning the heat up or down to your preference. But, again, this is a recipe where too little heat will result in an unbalanced dish.
- You’ll have noted that there is no water added in this recipe. The chicken braises in its own juices and in the moisture released by the tomatoes and the yogurt.
- Bone-in chicken is also important—you want the depth of flavour from the bones. If you can add the back and the neck all the better.
- My mother used to serve this with pulao but in my opinion this dish is at its best eaten with chapatis or parathas. If you don’t feel up to making either, good whole wheat tortillas are perfectly acceptable too. If going with rice, I prefer steamed basmati to pulao as the flavours of the curry don’t clash with anything else. This chholar dal rounds out the meal nicely.
- As with almost all Indian meat dishes of this kind, this tastes even better on the second day. At the very least I’d suggest making it several hours before and letting it sit in the refrigerator so that the flavours can meld further and the sauce take on more of a “pickled” tang from the yogurt.
- You could also try it with thick coconut milk instead of yogurt but if you do, I’d suggest leaving out the jaggery and raisins and adding a squeeze of lime at the end.
would fresh cayenne chilis be a good substitute for the thai chilis?
Any chilli of similar hotness should be a plausible substitute. The cayennes in my garden are a lot larger than my Thai chillies though. You’ll need to adjust for size as well.
Does the ‘hottest red chilli powder you can handle’ refer to ‘american’ chilli powder, or the kind I find in my local asian shop in England?
Yes, this is often a source of confusion. I use the Indian English spelling “chilli” with two ls to refer to what in the US would be chile peppers; so in this case “chilli powder” means powdered dry red chillies. Not the spice mix used for making chili with one l.
So, a hot one from your local South Asian grocery would be ideal.
Thank You! It is hard to find chile here, so I have to rely on my cousin in NM for my fix. Everything to hand except cassia leaves.
The curry is ‘resting’ presently, and smells awesome :-)
Great! I hope you like it. Remember: it will probably taste even better on day 2.
Your South Asian grocery is not going to recognize “cassia leaves”, probably; just ask if they have “tez patta”. Used dried bay leaves in a pinch.