Butter chicken (murgh makhani, pronounced moerk maknie) is a dish where chicken tikka – chicken marinated in yoghurt, citrus and spices, and roasted in a tandoor oven – is smothered in a creamy butter-tomato sauce.
Butter chicken is a North Indian dish, from Punjab and Mughlai, although it is now available all over the country in regional restaurants. Just like its sister dish chicken tikka masala, butter chicken was devised as a way to revitalise leftovers. A sauce-less dish, chicken tikka would be hard and dry the next day, but by stewing the meat in a buttery sauce, the meat became juicy and tender again.
Butter chicken vs chicken tikka masala
The base of the two dishes, butter chicken and chicken tikka masala, are so closely related that even connoisseurs cannot agree on a specific difference. Both start with chicken, marinated in tandoori masala spices and roasted on skewers in a tandoor (a cylindrical clay oven), with the only consistent change to the recipe being the addition of butter to the sauce.
Some say that chicken tikka masala is the true ‘Canadian’ dish, while others categorise the differences by the cut of the meat; on the bone is butter chicken, off the bone is chicken tikka masala. The spices themselves are interchangeable, but every chef has his or her favourite combination. In chicken tikka masala the spices are the most important ingredient, but in butter chicken, it is the butter.
Chicken pieces are rubbed with a marinade of yoghurt, citrus juice and tandoori masala. Tandoori masala is a spice mixture that varies from cook to cook, but it always contains garam masala (in itself a mixture, which includes cloves, cardamom and cinnamon), garlic, ginger, onion and cayenne pepper or Kashmiri-chilli.
The marinated pieces of chicken are strung on long skewers and placed vertically in a tandoor oven. Twenty minutes later, the meat is cooked; crunchy, smoky and with incredibly tasty scorch spots.
While the meat is cooking, a makhani (butter-based sauce) is made from fragrant ground spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, with ginger, green peppers and shrimp masala also sometimes used. Finally, tomato, cream and butter are stirred in, and the chicken is smothered in the sauce and simmered for around 10 minutes.
How to eat
Indians like to serve their butter chicken with naan, roti, chapati (wholemeal flatbread, baked dry in the pan) or paratha (a flatbread made of wholemeal flour and baked in a little oil). Pilau rice is also a popular side dish.
Difference between butter chicken and tikka masala
Butter chicken and tikka masala are staples of Indian cuisine, with similar ingredients, but slight variations in composition and cooking procedure. While both feature boneless chunks of chicken roasted in an oven, tikka masala is marinated in spices and served in a creamy yogurt sauce, while butter chicken is a milder, sweeter type of rich curry, made with a spiced tomato and butter sauce.