When 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
+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
1521 W Schaumburg Rd
Schaumburg, IL 60194