With this simple recipe, you'll wonder why it took you so long to make butter chicken from scratch

  • Simple Butter Chicken is a creamy, saucy and comforting favorite of Indian food lovers.

    Simple Butter Chicken is a creamy, saucy and comforting favorite of Indian food lovers. Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post

By Becky Krystal
The Washington Post
Posted2/27/2019 6:06 AM

Copycat recipes and cookbooks full of them are a dime a dozen. Whether it's because of nostalgia, a favorite meal or just the appeal of a challenge, there's no shortage of people trying to re-create classic dishes or improve upon them. I've done it myself, most successfully for the type of scones I've enjoyed in England and the bagels you'd find at a really good shop.

If you like Indian food, butter chicken might be that kind of holy grail for you. You may be a fan of your local takeout place. Or perhaps you're a devotee -- there are many of them, and I can see why -- of the frozen version from Trader Joe's. Whatever the source of your inspiration, you can have the butter chicken of your dreams at home, made by you. And it's easier than you probably think.


Count me in as an admirer of all types of Indian food. I love the variety of excellent vegetable-based dishes, especially those that are layered with spices and not weighed down by rich sauces. Sometimes, though, you want something creamy, saucy and as comforting as a warm blanket. That, in a nutshell, is butter chicken (also known as murgh makhani).

Diet food it's not. As cookbook author Raghavan Iyer says in his intro to one of my source recipes, "If you recently had a heart attack, this is not the curry for you -- sorry."

So, yes, it's rich, but not to the point that it's one-note. The alchemy of butter chicken, and this recipe in particular, is how a dish that is so complex in flavor doesn't have to cook for hours. Once the chicken is broiled, the sauce and finished dish come together in less than a half-hour. Because Iyer's recipe used paneer (an Indian cheese) rather than chicken, I decided to crib a simple yogurt, lime and spice marinade from a previous butter chicken recipe from our archives. Sure, it added some ingredients and the time it takes to marinate and broil the meat, but I think the flavor and tenderness you get is well worth the effort. That being said, if you decided to throw this together with leftover roast chicken, paneer or even extra-firm tofu, you'd still have a pretty great meal.

After all, my favorite part of the dish is the sauce. I'd be happy to eat it alone just over rice, ideally with some warm naan (Trader Joe's again for the win). Starting with canned tomato sauce adds smooth texture and concentrated flavor that doesn't leave you at the mercy of out-of-season grocery store tomatoes. What really takes the sauce over the top, though, and the closest to what you'd find in a restaurant are the fenugreek leaves. Check the TJ's label -- they're in there, too. They add something between a maple and licorice flavor that you won't necessarily miss if you don't have it, but you'll appreciate if you do.

The rest of the ingredients are pantry and refrigerator staples. (Garam masala is easy to find at most grocery stores these days.) It almost feels like you shouldn't be able to combine them into something that's so spectacular that you'll hardly be able to believe you made it. But you can and, dare I say, you should.

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