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Variations on a theme

"Boneless pieces of Tandoori chicken cooked with tomato, spices and finished with a cashew nut cream sauce." Haveli Heritage

I got it wrong again.

Yesterday was cooking with the grandchildren day and the choice of dish was chicken butter cream. It is my older son's very favourite dish and especially the one depicted here from the Haveli Heritage Restaurant in Nunawading. As you know when one eats in an Indian restaurant, we mostly share the food. But he will not share this. If we also want to taste this delicious dish we have to order our own. We have been going to this particular Indian restaurant for many years. When we first went there it was because it was our local Indian, but we have since discovered that it is also one of the best - the bread is divine and so are most of their dishes. And for my son the star is chicken butter cream. And I should have gone to their website to find that description at the top. It might have made my task easier.

So when it was chosen as the 'cooking with nanma' dish, I had to try and find a recipe. Not easy.

The first problem is sorting out what I was actually looking for - Butter chicken; Chicken butter cream, Murgh makhani, or Chicken tikka masala. And then having decided on which of those is the right name (if it is), decide on the best recipe.

Now that I have looked around a lot I can report a few things about these variations - because variations are really what they are. Basically we have a spiced chicken - the sort of spices in a tandoori chicken - garam masala, turmeric, cumin, coriander, chilli - plus the usual garlic and ginger of course, in yoghurt, finished with a tomato/creamy sauce. Sometimes it's called one thing, sometimes another and really they seem to cross over an awful lot.

Is it a traditional Indian dish? No not really. The most authentically Indian version is Murgh makhani, a dish 'invented by chance' in 1947 at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. Leftover chicken was mixed with a tomato gravy that was rich in butter and cream. Wikipedia goes on to describe their understanding of the dish.

"The chicken is usually cooked in a tandoor (traditional clay oven), but may be grilled, roasted, or pan-fried. It is served in a mild curry sauce that includes butter. The sauce is a tomato-and onion-based sauce that is simmered until smooth and much of the water has evaporated. There are many variations on the composition and spicing of the sauce, which is sieved so that it is velvety smooth. Spices may include cardamom, cumin, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, garam masala and fenugreek (Punjabi/Hindi: kasuri methi). Cream may be used in the sauce or as a garnish. Cashew paste may be used as a thickener and it is finally garnished with coriander."

And their chosen picture looked like this,

Which is pretty much like the Haveli version - a sort of bright orange and smooth.

Elsewhere they claim that Murgh makhani is known in the west as butter chicken or chicken butter cream. And I had decided that this was what I should be looking for.

But what about chicken tikka masala. Well Haveli has this dish too and they describe it as:

"Chicken tikka cooked with tomato, ginger, onion and spices."

The picture below is Madhur Jaffrey's version and, from memory is similar to the Haveli version. Very delicious it looks too. Will try it some time.

Chicken tikka of course is chicken kebabs, cooked in the tandoor. And this dish has quite a few claims to actually being a British invention - well by Bangladeshi immigrants. There are several origin stories which probably have a common theme of a Bangladeshi chef adjusting to the British need for meat in gravy. But there is also one specific story from Glasgow, apparently recounted on a Hairy Bikers' show by the son of the original Pakistani chef:

"On a typical dark, wet Glasgow night, a bus driver coming off shift came in and ordered a chicken curry. He sent it back to the waiter saying it's dry. At the time, Dad had an ulcer and was enjoying a plate of tomato soup. So he said why not put some tomato soup into the curry with some spices. They sent it back to the table and the bus driver absolutely loved it. He and his friends came back again and again and we put it on the menu."

Maybe that explains the sugar that is almost always in the sauce too. And this is Wikipedia's chosen picture on the right. As you can see it is very similar to the Murgh makhani - maybe a little runnier. Overall in spite of this being the Brits second most favourite ethnic food (after Chinese stir fry), just as they cannot find a reliable origin story they also cannot really say what it is:

"no recipe for chicken tikka masala is standard; a survey found that of 48 different recipes, the only common ingredient was chicken."

And I have to say that this was almost my experience when I was looking for recipes. Not quite though. The main likenesses were marinading the chicken, a commonality of spices - the ones previously mentioned, and a creamy tomato sauce. The main difference seemed to be whether it really was made with pre-cooked or leftover tandoori chicken and whether lashings of butter were added as well. This being 2020 most of the recipes did not go for the butter. The cashews that Haveli mentioned do appear in a few recipes but not many. Maybe that's what makes the Haveli version so special.

Since I was making this with the grandchildren I decided to ignore the versions that used leftover tandoori chicken or else we would have had to have had two different lessons. As it was they had to marinade the chicken overnight - but that was pretty easy, especially after their kebabs effort. This decision led to me discarding Madhur Jaffrey's version because she begins with leftover tandoori chicken. But next time I am doing tandoori chicken I might make double quantities and have a go. Or I guess you could just buy some take away tandoori chicken from your local Indian restaurant. I haven't looked but I'm guessing there is also frozen tandoori chicken in your local supermarket. Haveli probably uses leftovers - well their own tandoori chicken.

Anyway to cut this increasingly long story short, I narrowed the choice down to one from Recipe Tin Eats, which Nagi had adapted from a recipe by Luke Mangan, and one from Café Delites - the two foodie blogs I have reviewed so far. I chose the Café Delites version for no real reason other than that it wasn't quite as simple as the Recipe Tin Eats one. Silly I know and I'm not sure I made the right decision.

Not that it mattered ultimately because we all had a lot of fun making it. Of the family of two boys only one participated as the other was out of action due to a neck injury but he was helped a tiny bit by mum. I think she cut up the onion. She and I were lazy and decided that we would not purée the sauce but the granddaughters jumped right in with their mother's stick blender. Some of the versions I had seen had been very fussy on this and had you sieving the sauce. Much too complicated for this exercise. Not that this would have affected the taste at all - just the texture I suppose. And none of us had an end result that looked quite as orange - which makes you wonder whether there was colouring in there too. Mind you the scrapings from cooking the onion were pretty brown in my dish, so that coloured the sauce somewhat, and I think the girls thought so too. Here are our results - the girls is redder because they had no chilli so used paprika instead. My grandson's is on the top left - he's just nine years old by the way, the girls on the right and mine below - not the right colour at all. I'm not sure whether the girls or their mother made the pita bread. I bought my naan from the supermarket!

As I said - it was really tasty and a lot of fun. But sorry Bryn - not as good as Haveli's. No - make that different.

And by the way I didn't even look into Chicken korma - another very similar dish.


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