Indian Food for Beginners: Butter Chicken

Butter chicken, aka murgh makhani, is one of the most popular Indian dishes outside of India. It’s mild and creamy and a perfect dish to start your Indian cuisine adventure. Butter chicken was created in Delhi, India about 70 years ago. Yogurt and spice marinated chicken, tomatoes, cream (and usually butter), and a mild blend of spices make up this dish. The amount of Indian spices used completely depend on where you’re eating it or what recipe you’re following. Butter chicken (and its sister chicken tikka masala) quickly became popular dishes across the world. Brits, Americans, Australians, and many others have adopted these dishes into their own cuisines. Wherever you are on your butter chicken journey, hopefully there’s something in this post that will help.

butter chicken made with spice mix and Trader Joe’s naan

Try it at a restaurant: If you aren’t familiar with Indian food, most people would suggest starting with butter chicken at a restaurant. It’s usually not spicy, unless you request it. It’s creamy, velvety and the Indian spices are not overpowering. It seems like most restaurants know this is a ‘safe’ option for beginners, so they tend to play that up, making the butter chicken extra creamy (with heavy cream, butter, or both) and they hold back on the Indian spices where the curry has a much milder flavor than most other traditional dishes. Butter chicken will usually come with rice. If you want something extra on the side, saag paneer (spinach and cheese) , chana masala (chickpeas in a mild sauce), or some cheesy or garlic naan (thick flatbread) are all safe, mild additions.

Frozen: Ok, now that you believe me that butter chicken is in fact delicious, you may crave it often. Luckily, somehow, most frozen Indian curries are actually pretty good. I’m comparing them to other frozen dishes, like pad thai, raviolis, and Mexican TV dinners. I’ve had my fair share of frozen Indian meals and I haven’t disliked any of them. Most grocery stores will have several frozen Indian meals, like butter chicken, chicken tikka masala, lamb vindaloo (if you like spicy) and saag paneer. The richness of all these curries hold up well frozen. The rice can be a little wet, but hey you just made Indian food in five minutes, be happy with that. To make it a little more exciting, at least put it in a bowl after heating. If it feels a little boring, add some fresh cilantro, red pepper, garlic powder, or serve with a side of flatbread. Honestly, most breads are good with curries, I’ll keep your secret.

Jarred: Most grocery stores will have a small selection of jarred curries in their Asian section. These are very much hit-or-miss, but they do make for really quick meals. I’ve tried about 3-4 different brands, and most need a little help to develop the flavor. They tend to be a bit too acidic, I’m assuming because of the preservatives, so here’s how to spruce them up a bit:

  • Salt and other spices: Most of the jarred brands are fairly mild, so if you’re like me and like more flavor, consider adding salt, cumin, red pepper (flakes or powder) to jazz it up a bit.
  • Sugar: if it’s salted well, but feels too acidic, a couple teaspoons of sugar can cut the sourness and balance out the sauce.
  • Heavy cream: or other dairy in general (even a pad of butter) will also cut the acidity. If the sauce already tastes sweet, consider adding some dairy to make it more smooth.
  • Cilantro: or other fresh herbs can brighten the sauce and make it taste more homemade.
This is my favorite jarred sauce I’ve tried so far.

Spice Mix: I picked up a butter chicken spice mix from an international grocery store. I was expecting the spice mix to really cut out what I needed to use, but it had a long list of ingredients to make the dish. Luckily, I had everything, but I don’t know if I would suggest this as the best option. There wasn’t a huge difference in the spice mix list of needed ingredients and the completely homemade version I made next. And the homemade version tasted a lot better. But if you don’t have many Indian spices bought yet and you can find a spice mix at a regular grocery store, it’s a good alternative. But if you’re already at an international grocery store, just head over to the Indian spice aisle and buy the spices needed for a homemade version instead of a mix. It’s not complicated and tastes a lot better.

Instructions and ingredients for spice mix. I bought this at HMart, a Korean grocery store chain.

Homemade:

I made Cafe Delite’s butter chicken recipe twice and really liked it. It wasn’t complicated to make and it’s simple enough to whip up during the week. First, let’s go over the ingredients you’ll need. Click on the link above for the exact amount of everything:

  • Chicken thighs or breasts
  • Yogurt
  • Heavy cream
  • Olive oil
  • Ghee
  • Onion
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Garam masala
  • Turmeric
  • Ground cumin
  • Ground coriander
  • Chili powder
  • Dried fenugreek leaves
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • Tomatoes, crushed or diced

I chose chicken thighs, because I love dark meat chicken way more. I substituted yogurt for heavy cream, but if I had heavy cream I would have definitely used. I didn’t have dried fenugreek leaves, so I just left out.

My first round of this recipe turned out delicious, but there are two things I didn’t love. Usually when I order butter chicken, I don’t like it overly spiced. I’m not talking about spicy, but just less pungent with the Indian spices. If you want a more authentic flavor, go with the proportions of the recipe given, but for the second round, I cut the amount of spices in half and it gave it more of an Americanized Indian taste (something you would eat at a mainstream restaurant in the states) that I preferred more. I love strong Indian flavors, but with butter chicken, I like it mild. Next, the sauce in my first go-around wasn’t smooth. I love the velvety texture of butter chicken that I’ve eaten before, so my second try at this dish, I strained the sauce. It added about 10 minutes to the overall process, but it sure did make a huge difference. I was able to use probably 80% of the sauce (only leaving behind tomato pulp) and I loved the sauce so much more.

homemade from cafe delite recipe with frozen garlic naan TJs

I like to serve my butter chicken and rice separately, and I like the sauce to almost have a thick tomato soup consistency. The chicken is great, but I’m really after the sauce and carbs when I eat this meal. Depending on how soupy you like your sauce, also consider serving the rice on the side so it doesn’t get lost in the curry.

I know we are just scratching the surface of Indian food, but we all have to start somewhere. I remember taking several of my friends to an Indian restaurant for the first time and they all fell in love with it. It’s one of my favorite things: introducing a new dish to a friend, and them telling me later on they went out of their way to buy or make that dish again. Do you have any go-to Indian dishes you would also recommend to beginners? What’s a cuisine you tried recently and wish you’ve been eating it for years?

7 thoughts

  1. Hey Taryn! It’s Lahari from Hyderabad, India! I’ve read your article and felt happy how other country citizens are craving and prepping up Indian food. I would be hoping to see more articles from you on Indian Food.

    All the best for your endeavours!

    Love from India ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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