March 8, 2006
My Indian Love Affair: Chicken Makhani

makhani.jpgWhen I first moved to Paris I ate only French food, gorging myself on oysters and steak tartare and exploring the thousands of great cheap restaurants this city has to offer. I was living the life that most people imagine is our daily fare here in the expat community. But after a few years you realize that you are starting to get tired of seeing the same dozen plats in every cheap restaurant. Don't get me wrong: I recognize that we are in a GREAT place for food. But after a while you yearn for something different. Japanese. Italian. Indian.

And so began my Quest. I knew my favorite dish at the Star of India and its sister restaurants back in Chicago was Chicken Makhani. I scanned every menu of every Indian restaurant in Paris (well, nearly) and found it nowhere. In desperation, I started trying dishes based on the ingredients and what I imagined the dish would include: cream or yogurt, often garnished with almond slivers and raisins, creamy and savory but still with a bit of a bite of pepper.

Eventually I worked out that the closest equivalent in Paris was something called, oddly enough Butter Chicken. Let me be clear, it was not poulet au beurre. It was called Butter Chicken. (Pronounced Boot-air Cheek-can.) And it was so bland it nearly made me cry.

That was when the Critic and I began to develop our great Theory on the Absence of Good Indian Food in Paris. It's not that it's not here. It's hiding in the skulls of the Indian chefs, waiting for an Englishman or a girl from Chicago to coax it out. You have to cultivate your Indian restaurant in Paris. You choose one that has reasonably good (if bland) food and decent meat. You tell the waiter you want a really truly hot curry. You lie and tell him that you are from Leeds or Manchester or - if you are really serious - Bradford. When the food comes, you tell him "It was very good, but a little bland." And then you come back in a week and play again. And after a few months you will find that the flavors are there and your grinning spouse is dripping with sweat and assuring the waiter, "No, really I'm fine. It's GREAT!"

Of course the other solution for finding a great curry in Paris is to simply make it yourself. It means washing up dishes when you are done, but it's a lot cheaper than the restaurants. Below is my version of Chicken Makhani, a.k.a. Murgh Makhani, a.k.a. Butter Chicken. I'm not saying it's the most authentic version, and in fact I'm not even sure whether Chicken Makhani is one of those dishes that was made up to please European or American audiences. But it was everything I like a curry to be: rich, creamy and satisfyingly (but not sweat-inducingly) spicy.

Some of the recipes I've seen for this dish essentially call for making a tandoori chicken and then adding the cream, yogurt and some extra spices. I used to make it that way but using a jar of tandoori paste for the first step. I find that this recipe tastes much better and is actually less work, as you don't have to cook the chicken and then cook it again.

Chicken Makhani (serves two generously)

2 chicken breasts
2-3 tablespoons butter
4 shallots, sliced in thin strips
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon ginger, finely chopped
1 tablespoon of garlic, finely chopped or pressed
1 tablespoon garam masala
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup plain yogurt
2/3 cup cream
1 cup tomato sauce
1/2 teaspoon hot paprika (or to taste)
salt and pepper to taste (be generous with the salt - it will bring out the other flavours)
1/4 cup slivered almonds, divided
1/4 cup plump raisins (optional)
3-4 Tbs fresh coriander/cilantro

Cook the shallots in butter until they are limp and soft, about seven minutes. In the meantime, cut the chicken in bite-sized pieces. Remove the onions from the pan when they are cooked, leaving as much of the butter as possible. Turn up the flame a bit and add the chicken. Cook quickly, browning on all sides. When the chicken is cooked through, add the spices, ginger and garlic and stir for a few minutes until it smells lovely and exotic in your kitchen. Add a few tablespoons of water and use the liquid to deglaze, scraping up any bits of cooked chicken or spice that have stuck to the bottom of the pan. Add the tomato, slide the onion mix back into the pan and set to simmer.

At this point, you can put the basmati rice on to cook.

Once the rice is nearly done, taste the Makhani sauce for spices. It might need more salt. It might need that squeeze of lemon juice I nearly forgot to mention. Put a few tablespoons of the sauce in a bowl and mix it with the cream and the yogurt. Once they are incorporated, put it back into the pan with the chicken. Taste again for spices: this is when you decide if you really need to add another teaspoon of spicy paprika. Stir in the corainder leaves (chopped) and half the almond slivers and serve over hot basmati rice with a cold beer. Use the remaining almond slivers to garnish and sprinkle a little hot paprika over it too for color and just in case it's not quite hot enough!

And for those who are interested in knowing exactly which Indian restaurant we cultivated in Paris, it is:

Village de l'Inde
5 r Isabey
75016 PARIS
+33 1 42 88 37 31

We lived about five minutes walk from this place for about six years and came to know the waiters very well. When we let drop we were going to visit Chicago one evening, the waiter said "You know SCHOOMBURG? SCHOOMBURG near Chicago?? My cousin has a restaurant there - you must go!" And we did and had an exceptionally good meal. (It was actually better than the Village de l'Inde to tell the truth.) And when we found someone who knew our waiter in Paris they chopped 40% off the menu. Sweet.

India House Restaurant
(847) 895-5501
(847) 520-5569
1521 W Schaumburg Rd
Schaumburg, IL 60194

Posted by Meg in Sussex at March 8, 2006 9:47 AM Print-friendly version
Comments

This was such a delightful read, and the recipe sounds fabulous. Just one little question: how much chicken do you use to make it? : )

Posted by farmgirl on March 8, 2006 at 1:51 PM

SHOOMBURG?

I think there must be a pretty significant suburban Indian community out in Schaumburg-land. We ate at Udupi Palace in D.C. (sister restaurant to the one on Devon in Chicago), and they also had a listed location in Schaumburg that apparently didn't pan out.

Great post. I remember that being THE standard dish (along with Sag Paneer) that we had to get when we went out for Indian in Chicago.

Posted by barrett on March 8, 2006 at 1:57 PM

Oh, by the way - you want rice with that?

Posted by barrett on March 8, 2006 at 2:03 PM

Ay-yay-yay! The boy was "helping" me blog and I got distracted. Two chicken breasts is what we usually use, though I suspect some dark meat would be even nicer. I'll just pop off and correct that little omission...!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 8, 2006 at 2:07 PM

You should make enough rice for two. I don't post How to boil rice recipes. (Mainly because I'm sure someone is going to call me on it and tell me I don't know how to make rice properly.)

Actually, you could also follow the instructions in Floyd's India, as posted by me here:

Floyd's Jodhpuri Pulau

It is just fine with plain basmati rice too, though.

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 8, 2006 at 2:10 PM

Barrett has just written me privately to say:

Oh come on! Don't you remember the ordering ritual? Never, ever mention rice when you order and they will almost INSIST you get rice.

Which made me laugh. Because it's true I had forgotten the fact that I always refused to order rice with my curries in Chicago, feeling that the bread was nicer and enough starch for any meal. "Rice?" the waiter would say. "No rice" I would answer. "No rice?" he would repeat in disbelief. "No rice!" And he would wander away, shaking his head. This little drama was played out on average once a week in those days...

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 8, 2006 at 2:25 PM

I very much related to the comment on finding (and keeping) a restaurant with 'decent meat.' And thanks for the SCHOOMBURG tip, as I find it easier to go there than downtown. Sometimes the office even sends me, so I'll have an excuse to visit the India House.

Posted by Monica on March 8, 2006 at 4:33 PM

Mmmm... butter chicken... with naan... and aloo methi....

Have you made your own naan yet? It's dead easy.

-Elizabeth

Posted by ejm on March 8, 2006 at 6:22 PM

Great post! I'm vegetarian, but keen to try the recipe for friends. Btw, 'makhani' , from Hindi, translates literally to 'au beurre' or 'with butter'. And, while I'm not an expert, I think you actually wouldn't use ghee for the sauteeing. I've always associated the 'makhani' tag with the addition of cream (or milk, in a fat-conscious world) to a dish.

Posted by Ushma on March 9, 2006 at 1:08 AM

Ushma, thanks for the tip! I forgot to mention that I guessed that Makhani probably means butter because there are two dishes in my Indian cookbook with Makhani in the title and in both cases the English translation was "x with butter". I'll take away the ghee reference and be glad I've been doing it (mostly) correctly!

Elizabeth, I haven't yet made my own naan and I definitely need to get on the ball and do so - the ones I bought at the store were dry, tasteless and cakey. Ick!

Posted by Meg on March 9, 2006 at 3:15 AM

Ushma got to tell you that makani means "avec buerre." ;-)

Here's a little history lesson on murgh makani--it is an authentic dish from the time of the Mogul Empire in northern India, which means that cuilinarily speaking, its deepest roots trace back to Persian cuisine. A lot of the really rich, yogurt, butter and milk-laden dishes we get in Indian restaurants in the West came originally from the cooking of the Mogul courts.

So, no, it is not an inauthentic curry made to a Westerner's palate at all. It is the royal palace cookery from a long-ago Empire.

Posted by Barbara on March 9, 2006 at 7:35 AM

Barbara, I thought you would know! I'm going to have to get a Persian cookbook obviously because this is the kind of Indian food I like best!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 9, 2006 at 8:41 AM

Just for you, Meg, I posted a baker's dozen of my favorite cookbooks on Tigers & Strawberries last night.

Among the Indian, Chinese, Cuban, Italian, Mexican and Jamaican cookbooks--there is a Persian one. ;-)

One thing about Persian food and the Persian-influenced Indian food. Persian food uses fewer spices--there is much use of nuts, fruits, seeds, herbs and some spices in Persian food, but the heavier use of spices happened when the Moguls came to India, and got a taste for the native spices.

So, while you will most likely love Persian food (I do), if you want the spices, too, go for a Northern Indian style cookbook.

Or, one of each. That's the way I would go!

Posted by Barbara on March 10, 2006 at 9:53 AM

Thanks Barbara - I have just read your post and am tempted to bookmark it so I can keep going back each time I need a new inspiration. If I limit myself to one cookbook a month (surely enough even for an enthusiastic coook) I'll have material to keep me inspired for over a year!!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 11, 2006 at 3:38 AM

Hi Meg,
I was so happy to read your post on Indian food in Paris. I've also been frustrated with finding good Indian food here, so I was glad to see that it wasn't just me! I will definitely be trying this recipe. My husband just made me a fantastic curry with cashews that I'll be posting about soon. Thanks again for the advice...perhaps I'll seek out my neighborhood Indian resto again!

Posted by ChezMegane on March 11, 2006 at 10:50 AM

Hey, I know what you mean about Indian food being bland in Paris. It was frustrating though we never thought of ''cultivating'' a few of them...But we got over the problem by making all our curries ourselves. And now, we prefer to eat in our own curry house - chez nous!

Posted by Beau Lotus on March 20, 2006 at 3:21 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed the end result - this is what I expect butter chicken to taste like!
A question - do you add the onions/shallots back in at some point?

Posted by Hans on March 26, 2006 at 5:15 PM

OOOPS. Yes, with the spices. I'll correct the recipe...this is why cookbook writers have editors, right??

; )

Posted by Meg on April 11, 2006 at 4:48 AM

Makhani does mean butter.

Actually, I just made this today and it turned out really good. I've always loved Chicken Makhani and took me quite a while to make it perfect.

Now I'm working on Nihari...

Posted by Nazir Khaki on December 14, 2006 at 4:48 PM

I've just made this for the second time and found it to be a very close replica to my favorite Chicken Makhani dish at Amol India in Cincinnati, Ohio. I absolutely love it and if it weren't for the cream, I'd eat it much more often!

As a slight modification, I make and use cooked chicken from my chicken tandoori recipe in it in place of cooking the chicken in the spices. My kids (3 yrs. & 18 mos.)will eat the chicken tandoori but not the makhani. :-)

It's wonderful, satisfies a craving when I can't get to Amols and I love it! Thanks for posting it!

Posted by Meg aka Meggers on January 16, 2007 at 5:56 PM

Major question--when do you add the raisins. My husband and I had chicken makhani at a new Indian restaurant here in Cincinnati. I'm excited to try it at home. I love it served with the raisins and they are always juicy. Are they added with the almonds or do you add them at the end as a garnish?

Posted by marcene on February 6, 2007 at 6:38 PM

Major question--when do you add the raisins. My husband and I had chicken makhani at a new Indian restaurant here in Cincinnati. I'm excited to try it at home. I love it served with the raisins and they are always juicy. Are they added with the almonds or do you add them at the end as a garnish?

Posted by marcene on February 6, 2007 at 6:38 PM

Add the raisins with the cream, if you are including them. I love them but my dear Critic does not, so I usually just sprinkle a few over my own portion, but if they simmer a few minutes with the creamy sauce they will plump up a little and be even nicer!

Posted by Meg in Paris on February 7, 2007 at 5:59 AM

Thank you! I looked all over the Web for a good chicken makhani recipe that would resemble the dish I used to eat in Evanston. And your version works!

Posted by Becky on April 11, 2007 at 12:20 AM

i just thought that i would let you know?
i am from a town called treharris in south wales and there is an indian there that sells chicken makhani and it is absolutely gorgeous i will try ur recipe and if your near here i suggest you try it

Posted by Gareth on July 10, 2007 at 6:43 PM

Fabulous. I've been craving Butter Chicken like crazy ever since moving to my particular neck of the woods -- I've been buying a jar version but this looks superb.

Posted by cath on October 21, 2007 at 3:10 PM

When I first discovered Butter Chicken I couldn't belive how great this dish tasted. Although it doesn't seem as exotic as most food you get in Indian and Pakistan restaurants it's the one dish which has stopped me from trying all the other dishes at my favourite Indian restaurant. For other dishes I visit other places.

If anyone of you ever come to Oslo / Norway the place you should visit is called Gate of India which lies at Majorstuen. They make a fantastic butter chicken there.

On to your recipe. I'm going to try this one today. I've tried a lot of variations but noone has really lived up to my expectations. This one looks very close to "the one".

Posted by Kenneth B on October 31, 2007 at 8:29 AM

My boyfriend was jonesing for Butter Chicken, but his local indian place didn't have it on the buffet. So I said I'd make it for him. We're eating it right now and it is awesome. He says its not quite like his favorite, but is exactly like this other place and it is very very good no matter what. Thanks!

(We live in Naperville, and I went into our new local Indian Mart to get the chili powder - It was hilarious, because I was the only non-Indian in the place. However, they were serving awesome samoases and everyone in line bought some, so I did too, and we scarfed them down. :)

Posted by Gail on March 9, 2008 at 10:46 PM

The recipe and resulting picture look YUMMY!

Question, since you mention that the reciep serves two: do you mean two WHOLE chicken breasts or two chicken breast halves?

Thx for sharing this with the masses :)

Posted by -e- on May 14, 2008 at 8:09 PM

I mean halves, i.e. about 250 grams!

Posted by Meg in Paris on May 15, 2008 at 3:12 PM

check out dozens of exciting butter chicken recipes Click here

Posted by Lloyd on July 28, 2008 at 7:15 AM

I love butter chicken. And, for the life of me have struggled to make that really creamy sauce. I add the cream but its just not the same. Tonight, I used your recipe (only doubled). And it was awesome. I did use butter chicken masala I found at the Indian grocers for that taste...but not too spice just heat and a bit of garam masala. It worked out great!

And, I did marinate in yogurt. First, in the masala for an hour or two. Then, I added yogurt (strained over a cloth for 20 min, and wrung out - thick yogurt). And, added garlic, ginger, garam masala, butter, and oil. Cooked it in the oven first.

OH MY WORD. BEST BEST BEST makhani ever. My husband is not home from work yet...I think my kids are going to finish the pot!! And, they are 2 and 3 years old, lol.

Posted by Rbin on April 23, 2009 at 7:24 PM

Why shallots and not any old onions? And why cut them into slivers, in thin strips, of you're taking them out anyways? I can never understand all the little detailslike those that can't possibly make a difference in the final outcome. They sound all nice, "slivers" sounds great, but friggin dice any old onion you're taking out anyways and I'm positive you'll get the same result. Get real now.

Posted by Joe on August 15, 2010 at 9:36 PM

Joe, the shallots are removed just long enough to cook the chicken and then should be put back in the dish. Why shallots? Because when I wrote the post, I lived in France (as I think is apparent in the discussion of finding decent Indian food in Paris) and shallots were the most common of the onion family to be found. Onions would be fine. I prefer the texture of slivers to chopped, as they tend to melt into the sauce but nothing is written in stone.

I'm not sure, really, why this bothers you so much as I don't think that I came across as some kind of onion Nazi...live and learn.

Posted by Meg in Sussex on August 17, 2010 at 3:18 PM

It's hard to convey just how thankful I am for your recipe. We are in the same boat here in New Orleans. We have Indian restaurants, but they are just OK, and we have a serious need to make it at home. This recipe is PERFECT and is literally the favorite family dinner in our house (reserved for special occasions due to richness). Various family members of all ages have requested that I substitute it for CHRISTMAS DINNER, even. Thank you so much for posting this. We have used the heck out it for years now.

Posted by Jane on March 14, 2012 at 10:59 AM

Hi this looks amazing...I've tried 3 recipes so far with no avail :( I've read before that cayenne pepper and chili powder is the same. Is that true? If I use chili powder, is it the american kind? Or Should I use cayenne pepper?

Thank you so much!

Posted by Sue on August 21, 2012 at 5:59 PM

Sue, chili powder is typically a mix of ground dried chili peppers, usually including the variety of cayenne. Cayenne is a specific chili variety. It's slightly spicier than chili powder, but the two can be interchanged without too much of a difference. You can find a discussion here:

http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/342241

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