When someone mentions “classic Maine cuisine,” my mind immediately leaps to big, steaming copper pots overflowing with creamy saag paneer, yogurt-marinated blackened chicken skewers cooking in hot clay ovens, sweet, fruity chutneys, and thick vindaloos so spicy that they blow the top of your head off. Wait, that’s not right. How about the fact that I didn’t eat Indian food until I was 23 years old? Yes, that’s the introduction I was looking for.
During our broke-and-starving college days, Jillian would often suggest Indian takeout for an easy Friday evening meal. For some reason, and in spite of a love of curry and spice, I always thumbed my nose in response. Then, Indian food was simply something I didn’t eat, and couldn’t even really consider. I think, like many people who have not yet been initiated to Indian cuisine, I think I always assumed it was just scraps of bread swiped through insanely spicy glop, some sort of mysterious vegetarian food that would make me sweat and feel uncomfortable.
Then, during a shift at the bong store I worked at in college, one of my esteemed coworkers ordered a round of vegetable samosas. Broke and hungry, I tried one, and instantly fell head-over-heels in love. I couldn’t believe that deep-fried sacks of potato and peas could pack so much flavor, and loved the way the intensely smoky curry played off the bright, fruity flavors of the accompanying chutney. I immediately began eating as much Indian food as I could find, and was stunned at the flavor combinations I had been missing.
During our last visit to Bombay Mahal in Brunswick, I overheard a couple at the next table having a quiet argument. The husband, a mid-fifties, barrel-chested, no-nonsense type of guy, was grumbling about being in an Indian restaurant, while his long-suffering wife explained, in hushed tones, that if he just gave it a chance, he might like it. I was stunned, and sad; I had wasted 23 years not eating Indian food, and have been making up for lost time in the ten years since. I couldn’t imagine never having tried it at all, and decided to try and find a recipe that could give people who may have never tried, or even think that they dislike Indian food, a way to ease in to the new combinations of flavors that they’ve been missing.
Butter chicken (or murgh makhani) is as good a place to start as any, doesn’t require tons of special ingredients, and won’t raise any red flags, when you prepare it for dinner. In spite of its name, the dish uses just a spot of butter; the name may be more of a reference to the silky-smooth texture of the sauce. I like mine spicy, but you can make the dish as mild as you’d like. The heat from the chile is mellowed dramatically by the heavy cream, cashews, and garam masala, an aromatic mix of cloves, cinnamon, and coriander. It’s absolutely delicious over rice, and provides an excellent way to warm up as the night gets cooler.
Butter Chicken (Murgh makhani)
Adapted from a recipe on Vah Reh Vah; Serves 6
- 2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast, cubed
- 8 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 teaspoons ginger paste
- 2 tablespoons coriander powder
- 2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
- Salt, to taste
- Vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 onion, chopped
- 2 cups water
- 1/4 cup cashew nuts
- 3 tomatoes, chopped
- 1/2 fresno chile, seeded and diced
- 1/2 stick unsalted butter
- 1 tablespoon ketchup
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/2 cup cream
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1/4 cup parsley, chopped, for garnish
- In a large bowl, toss chicken cubes, half the garlic, 1 teaspoon of the ginger, 1 tablespoon of the coriander powder, 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, and a pinch of salt. Toss until well coated and set aside.
- Heat a slash of oil in a large skillet, and add the marinated chicken. Cook for about five minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
- In the same skillet add the cumin seeds, the onion and remaining garlic and ginger to the skillet and saute for a couple minutes, until onions soften. Add two cups of water to the skillet, and stir. Add the cashew nuts, the remaining coriander powder, remaining red chili powder, the tomatoes, and the fresno chile, and stir well.
- Let the sauce cook slowly over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Transfer the sauce to a blender, and blend until smooth. Pour the sauce back into the skillet, and add the butter, the ketchup, and the sugar, and stir well.
- Add the cream and the reserved chicken to the sauce. Cook the chicken for a few more minutes, making sure it’s cooked through. Add the garam masala and stir well. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve over rice.