It's a gravy kind of love for fans of popular Indian dish
Butter chicken, or murgh makhani, is one of India's most popular dishes, and an integral part of the childhood memories of many north Indians.
The secret to butter chicken's allure is the gravy, with its addictive balance of tomato, butter, cream and spices including fenugreek, ginger, garam masala and red chilli powder. The style changes according to the chef's preference, whether it's a fiercely red, Mughlai style that is heavy on the onion and butter, or the creamy, melt-in-the-mouth, largely tomato-based gravy suited to tastes of the Punjab - or indeed any variety in between.
Butter chicken is similar to chicken tikka masala, one of Britain's most popular dishes that is believed to have originated in Glasgow, Scotland, when a diner complained that his chicken tikka (chunks) dish had no gravy and the restaurant obliged by creating a sauce of tomatoes, spices and cream. But the ingredients in chicken tikka's masala gravy tend to be more flexible than in murgh makhani, going so far as to include coconut cream. Butter chicken uses chunks of de-boned or on-the-bone chicken that have been marinated in yoghurt, lemon juice, red chilli powder and other spices, and cooked on skewers in the tandoor (or oven, if cooking at home), but the dish is more complex and spicy, although not traditionally hot enough to bring sweat to the brow.
Every meat-eating Delhiwallah (Delhi person) has one or two favourite venues that cook the dish exactly as he or she likes it. It is impossible to choose the capital's top butter chicken maker but here are five popular restaurants with their own unique character.
3704 Netaji Subhash Marg, Daryaganj; tel: +91 (011) 2327 3011
Legend has it that butter chicken was first made at Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi, which was opened by chef and restaurateur Kundan Lal Gujral after fleeing from Peshawar in Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. The chefs at Moti Mahal supposedly recycled the juices that dripped from the cooking chicken by adding butter and tomato. Some food experts dispute this claim, but either way it is worth a trip to this Delhi landmark.
Having withstood the vagaries of the decades, this oldest branch of Moti Mahal (now Moti Mahal Delux) has lost some of its spark. The drab dining room is in need of a makeover and the staff are rather harried and not entirely helpful, but the butter chicken here is luscious, with a rich, smooth sauce that's so well balanced it's almost annoying. It's not unusual to see diners wiping remnants off the bowl with strips of naan to get the last drop.
Level 2, Select Citywalk, Saket; tel: +91 (011) 4157 2977
Butter chicken here is at its most refined. The gravy is strained repeatedly through muslin to ensure it is as smooth as silk, and the spices sing in a symphony of flavours. The chicken is tender, the marinade soaked deliciously into the meat. Great care has been taken in preparing the dish, as with other items on the menu at this upmarket venue. The restaurant was started by one of India's most famous food experts, Jiggs Kalra, and now has a few branches across the country. The Saket branch is unfortunately located in a mall, but the terrace setting and relaxed decor make this less apparent.
11-12 Panadara Road Market; tel: +91 (011) 2338 7070
This is the place real men come for their butter chicken fix: the gravy is as full-flavoured as it gets, almost catching the back of the throat with its delicious richness. Not too spicy, not too sweet, it's a magnificent dish fit for kings and generals. Havemore has been serving the dish for decades, from its previous incarnation as a roadside dhaba (dai pai dong) and now at this sit-down restaurant with napkins and friendly waiters, but slightly scuffed and old-fashioned decor. Like the restaurant name suggests, Havemore has a loyal following of in-the-know locals who repeatedly come back for more.
Kake Da Hotel
74, Municipal Market, Connaught Circus, Connaught Place; tel: +91 (011) 2341 1580
Opened in 1931, Kake (meaning 'uncle') is a Delhi legend. Staying open almost 24 hours a day, it used to attract the late-night drinking crowd in Delhi's epicentre of Connaught Place. It now pulls in a more even spread of diners from families to after-hours businessmen, and while it has transformed from a rough and ready outdoor dhaba, it is still a far cry from posh. Diners walk past cauldrons of gravies bubbling at the entrance that are slopped over the sides of dishes as they arrive at the table at great speed. The butter chicken is equally crude: brick red and swimming in butter, it is ideal for a cheap, unsophisticated taste of Delhi's less refined food culture.
Punjabi by Nature
11 Basant Lok, Vasant Vihar; tel: +91 (011) 4151 6666
An ode to Punjabi culture, which is stereotyped as brash and brazen, this Delhi favourite serves huge portions of heavily spiced grilled meats, vegetables and curries. The decor is bold in bronze and browns, a waterfall mural covering most of one wall in the dining room downstairs. Upstairs is a bar with television screens and wide leather sofas from which to enjoy the restaurant's famous vodka golgappas (crunchy shells filled with tamarind, chilli, chaat masala and vegetables, eaten with vodka distilled with Indian spices). The butter chicken is a warm brown, fittingly rich and thick with cream. The chicken is tender and succulent. A good choice for a classy, unchallenging taste of this archetypal north Indian dish.