Sunday, 5 June 2016

The Incident Of The Nearly-Ruined Butter Chicken

I'd first learnt about butter chicken from a crime novel. Then, scouring the Internet, I found and watched butter chicken get made in some YouTube videos, and soon an itch began to form. My recipe for butter chicken would be a mix from those videos.

But while marinating the chicken breast, catastrophe. I threw a rule of thumb out the window: when seasoning, start small, then adjust from there.

I had a near meltdown when the marinade of salt, pepper, yoghurt, chilli powder and turmeric powder tasted like the sea - a few times. Three cut-up chicken breasts, rushed home from the supermarket, threatened to go to waste.

However, the show must go on. I hadn't had much of a chance to cook a meal last weekend and the inner chef was chafing. The chicken was marinated overnight, and I decided to skip the salt in other parts of the recipe should my worst fears come true.

Thinking that this dish would fail anyway, I was all, screw it, put it together anyhow you like. You can do a few other things with the marinated chicken.

The first time murgh makhani or butter chicken is getting done in
this kitchen. And it did not start out well.

If you believe the Wikipedia, butter chicken (murgh makhani in Hindi) was some Indian restaurateur's attempt to repackage left-over chicken tandoori some six decades ago. As this was India we're talking about (they do wicked things with spices), the result became a hit and has travelled the world thanks to the diaspora - and the Internet.

(I'm sorry, boys and girls, because I didn't take enough pictures of the process, as I'd decided this would be a culinary clusterf*ck, no thanks to my possibly oversalting the chicken. Bear with me. I'll even skip a few steps for you.)

First, I took out my frustrations on several tomatoes, including one that had been in the fridge for a week and was still fine, though the skin was beginning to wrinkle. When they refused to blend in the blender, I pushed them in with my hand - with the blender off.

I ran the resulting mush through a sieve and instead of a puree, I got tomato soup - or a gazpacho base. Watery and not pulpy at all. I'd left a can of tomato puree alone because I'd thought all the salt I'd need for the dish would come from the chicken.

I was wrong.

The pieces of chicken I'd tasted were salty, but on the outside. The salt hadn't gone in too deeply, and I did - had to - discard almost half of the marinade I didn't use. This is supposed to be the "left-over chicken tandoori" you're supposed to "rescue".

If that sounds a bit Bollywood, well, figures.

Right away, after chopping up the second yellow onion, I realised I had too much, but since no other vegetables were available, fine. I left half the third onion in the fridge, which I cut into half-rings to be thrown into the dish to finish.

While the masala was being pan-fried in about two tablespoons of butter, I got the rice cooker going. I hazarded one pinch of salt into the boatload of chopped yellow onion, now more yellow because of the turmeric-tinged melted butter in the pan.

Next, in went the grated ginger and garlic, followed by the spices: cumin powder (one teaspoon), coriander powder (one tablespoon), chilli powder (two tablespoons) and pepper (about 32 shakes). This might be the first time I'm preparing a curry dish without curry powder.

I tossed the spices into the onion off the heat, then returned it to the flame and poured in the tomato juice - let's call it what it is. Simmered it for a few minutes, then in went about 100mls of cream. Then the chicken went back in.

A taste. Yes, you guessed it. More salt, but carefully.

I believe one problem with added salt is that when it finally shows up strong in a dish it is already too late. Once concern is the level of sodium, which things like cream and sour stuff can disguise.

Towards the end, the remaining onion and two more tablespoons of butter went in. I'd added some water earlier because I wanted more sauce.

No one to share this with, but that's okay. The leftovers
tasted as good after 24 hours in the freezer.

This butter chicken of sorts didn't turn out to be the disaster I'd envisioned. But look at all the onion! And my fingers smelled of butter for over half an hour afterwards.

Butter chicken is not easy at all. But not impossible.


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