I traveled to the Big City recently and was introduced to buttered chicken, a spicy, tomato based Indian dish served with naan and rice. The restaurant was a hole in the wall of a strip mall with an unassuming name and room for maybe fifteen people. But it was clean and smelled of spices and tea and staff didn’t speak a word of English but that offered no hindrance to the experience and this tiny establishment has easily entered my top five favorite places-to-eat.
Not having a lot of experience with Indian food, I went with the aforementioned buttered chicken which was suggested as a good introduction for a westernized pallet. What followed was one of those glorious moments of discovery that should define life and living. The dish was an exploration of flavors delivered with a smooth texture of flavored cream over jasmine rice. One can assume that one knows what one likes. One can think that boundaries of flavor have been explored. But one good dish can implode your expectations of what cooking can achieve.
Well, now we have a problem. The Big City, of course, is not short on restaurants but is about an hour away and my Small Town thinks that the Chinese buffet with it’s Americanized deep fried imitations of nothing Chinese is fancy foreign style eating. There is one Thai restaurant that is very good but the menu is limited to, well, Thai. There are some sushi options cropping up and a couple of very expensive restaurants where the fancy folk gather for superiority contests but there are no hole-in-the-wall ethnic eateries offering exotic tastes and unique culinary experiences.
So I’m on my own for the most part if I want to explore these new horizons. I decided to start with buttered chicken since I know what one version of it tasted like and therefore had a “target” to shoot for. When I go back to the Big City, the goal will be to try a new dish and see if it’s worth trying to replicate and so on.
But first: Buttered Chicken.
A quick search for recipes and a conclusion is quickly reached: Buttered chicken is to India as chili is to Texas. Every family has their own recipe and their’s is the only one that tastes right. Second conclusion: It’s not a simple dish. There are steps involved. It’s not hard by any means but it is involved. Once again the comparison can be made to Texas chili.
But it’s very doable. But as far as recipes, the variations are mind numbing. I settled on a slow cooker variation that featured coconut milk and yogurt and the first batch came out edible but no where close to my target. I was missing the actual masala though and trying to substitute with what spices I had. However, I would caution against short cutting the ingredients and that may be the most challenging part of the dish is tracking down the masalas. Masala is a mixture of spices that can vary from region to region and family to family. You can find recipes to make your own but the list of spices involved is intimidating and expensive. I made a side venture during one of my trips to the Big City to an Indian market and the clerk was very helpful in pointing out the best brands for what I was trying to achieve (“My wife uses this brand and I married her because of her cooking.”)
Next attempt, I ditched the slow cooker and went back my cast iron skillet. My instincts were telling me that my comparison to Texas chili were spot on and this required low, slow heat and a can of Ro-Tel. I still liked the ingredient list from the slow cooker recipe, I just wanted to manage the cooking of the ingredients in their own time as opposed to cooking them all at once. So the chicken went in, then the tomato paste and small can of Ro-Tel, Spices and the yogurt were next and then I let it simmer on medium-low heat for about forty minutes. Then I added the can of coconut milk and brought it back up to heat and it was done. Total cook time was about an hour which is long for me. I stirred and tasted and tested like an Italian grandmother and added curry and masala as I thought it needed it.
In the end the flavors were spot on and I can see potential for getting creative. The RoTel, although not traditional, adds a bit of heat but if you want to punch it up a bit, add more of the garam masala. I used more chicken that the recipe called for but it was fine.
But, of course you need naan, which is the traditional Indian flatbread. But I still avoid gluten when possible and so the search began for a gluten free alternative. I found the solution here: Three ingredient paleo naan. Note that I’ve substituted the coconut milk for almond milk and it works fine. I also tried rice flour in place of the almond meal and it works but you need to cook the bread longer.
Here are the links to the recipes for convenience: