A Chef’s Obsession with Butter Chicken

I remember my first taste of meat on my twelfth birthday. When I was a child, my father got a job in India’s vegetarian Gujarat state. In those days there was no meat or fish allowed in the region so my meat-loving Bengali family packed our bags to sacrifice meat for a comfortable upbringing.

A few years later, on a family trip to Daman, a meat-eating union territory ruled by the central government, the hotel where we dined laid out a sprawling meat-centric buffet. We feasted on kebabs and stews, but what really stuck in my memory was the creamy, smoky butter chicken served with blistered naan. Just one taste and I found himself seeking out the dish whenever I could for years to come.

As trade in the region progressed, new dhaba roadside restaurants opened along the highway truck stops, affording easier access to my growing obsession. When I became a cook in Jaipur in my early 20s, I would rent motorbikes with my best friend, a Sikh – a branch of religion that commonly partakes in lacto-vegetarian diets. We would bike up to Jalandhar with bottles of rum to bribe the dhabas’ owners to teach us their methods and ended up working for free in the tiny roadside stands, absorbing everything we could about Punjabi fare.

I went on to cook through many prestigious western kitchens before returning to my roots. At first, I applied a more precise and technical technique-driven approach – an attempt to westernise Indian fare – as this is what I was used to. But I was concerned the food was losing its identity. I was worried that I was bastardising the cuisine and producing food that was unreliable and inauthentic.

Striving to put respect back into the cuisine, I brushed up on the origins of traditional dishes and found that butter chicken was a post-Partition dish born out of necessity, chaos and displacement in 1947. When three men fled with their families to Delhi they opened a tandoori restaurant, Moti Mahal, specialising in chicken tikka. They created butter chicken as an ingenious way to revive dried-out chicken tikka with a yoghurt and spice marinade, followed by a velvety red bath of butter, tomatoes, chicken stock, onion, ginger and a blend of spices including garam masala and toasted cumin.

Inspired by the dish’s humble roots, I honed my rendition using caramelised onions and the prized Three Yellow chicken, which is known for its flavourful fat. The vibrant stew is made with a rich chicken stock and Roma tomatoes for a complex aroma and dark red colour. And of course, as the name suggests, the dish would not be complete without copious amounts of good quality butter.

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If this story got your mouth watering and taste buds tingling, you may want to satiate your appetite with some more food stories. Try reading about the origins of Durban’s portable curry-in-a-loaf, bunny chow, or discover Vietnam’s blue-collar lunches.

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