At this point in my pregnancy, I’ve gradually moved on from my Mexican burritos and tacos phase, to my Indian food phase – particularly indulgent dishes like my dad’s butter chicken and my mom’s deep-fried pakoras.
My cravings are frequent and I can’t get enough! I figured this might be the perfect time to do some experimenting and tackle these dishes on my own. It makes satisfying pregnancy cravings on a whim that much easier.
My first taste of butter chicken was when my parents owned an Indian restaurant back in the early 1990s. The restaurant has since closed but this decadent dish has lived on and lucky for me, they indulge my craving upon request (thanks Dad!).
My parents love to entertain and they’ve enjoyed gatherings with family and friends for as long as I can remember. Dinner parties weren’t fancy but they were always a good time, and food was always the headliner for me. The two days preceding the event always felt painful, as my sister and I spent organizing and cleaning the house under the watchful eye of my mom, but it was all worth it because we knew we were in for a treat come Dinner Party Day, literally.
If we were serving Indian food, then butter chicken was usually on the menu, as were pakoras. Pakoras are a staple appetizer and I’m so happy about that fact! They’re addictive fritters, crispy on the outside and perfectly moist on the inside. It’s impossible to have just one – and I’m totally okay with that!
I’m not going to lie – I’ve been avoiding trying out this recipe because it seemed intimidating to create a dish that is deeply revered by so many. But I must say, it’s not that complicated! Even though this recipe requires a bit of elbow grease, the effort is well worth it. This is a recipe that you’ll be proud to serve at your next dinner party.
3 boneless chicken breasts (about 1 lb), well-thawed, cut into bite size pieces*
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes (canned or bottled) or tomato sauce
250 mL carton of whipping cream**
Juice of 1/4 of fresh lemon or 1/4 tsp of bottled lemon juice***
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
Couple tbsp vegetable or canola oil
5-6 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 tbsp ginger, finely minced
1 large white onion, finely chopped
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves
1 tsp garam masala
1/4 tsp red chilli powder or 1/2 tsp green chilli, finely minced (Adding this amount will still keep the dish very mild. You can add a bit more if you like your dish spicier)
1 tsp coriander powder or coriander seeds finely crushed
1/2 tsp paprika
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
Butter Chicken Masala
In a coffee grinder or with a mortar-pestle, finely grind a mix of:
2 tbsp green fennel seeds****
3 green cardamom seeds or 1/2 tsp green cardamom seeds
1 1/2 tbsp brown sugar****
1 tsp cinnamon powder or 1/2 cinnamon stick (If adding the stick to the coffee grinder, break up the stick or else it could ruin your coffee grinder)
3 bay leaves
1. In a food processor or in a large bowl using a hand blender, puree all the ingredients for the Gravy Base until smooth. Traditional butter chicken sauces are smooth and velvety. If you prefer a chunkier gravy, skip this step and ensure all your Gravy Base ingredients are finely chopped/minced before you start cooking.
2. In a heavy bottom pot, heat oil on medium heat. Add cumin seeds and stir in oil, ensuring it doesn’t burn. Once the cumin seeds become fragrant, add the pureed Gravy Base to the pot and stir well. Cook until everything is well-browned, stirring constantly so nothing sticks and burns to the bottom of the pot, about 10 minutes. If you find it burning lower the heat slightly and add a drop or so of oil, as needed.
3. After the onions have browned, add the Gravy Masala and crushed tomatoes. Mix and simmer for about 5 to 7 minutes. Add whipping cream and lemon juice and simmer for another 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Add chicken and Butter Chicken Masala and incorporate well into the gravy. Increase the heat to high, bring everything to a boil and then reduce heat to low so the gravy is slowly simmering. Cover and simmer until the chicken is cooked through, about 20 to 30 minutes. During the simmering process, make sure to stir the dish every few minutes to prevent everything from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning. At the 20 minute mark, sample the dish and test if the chicken is cooked and adjust the salt in the sauce as needed. If you feel the sauce isn’t sweet enough, add about a 1/2 tsp of brown sugar, mix, simmer and taste. Repeat as necessary.
Makes 4 to 6 servings. Best served with naan or basmati rice. Store in refrigerator in a sealed, air-tight container for up to a few days.
*Ensure the chicken is well-thawed, preferably “naturally” and not force-thawed in the microwave, otherwise your chicken will become chewy once cooked. To thaw chicken, place the sealed package in the refrigerator to thaw gradually or if you’re pressed for time, thaw pieces in a bowl of lukewarm water.
**Whipping cream is ideal if you want a traditional, rich butter chicken sauce. If you don’t want to use whipping cream and want a lighter version, you can use 1/2 carton of the whipping cream + 2 cups of 2% milk; or 1/2 cup of greek style yogurt + 2 tbsp of unsalted butter + 8 oz (about a tall drinking glass) of 2% or whole milk.
***If you use the yogurt-butter-milk combination instead of whipping cream for the butter chicken sauce, omit the lemon juice. The lemon juice and yogurt combination will make the sauce sour.
This dish can be whipped up fairly quickly and feel free to experiment with spices and fillings once you’re comfortable with the recipe. Try bite-size pieces of cauliflower, eggplant, kale or zucchini. Adjust the flour and water as needed to get the batter to the right consistency. Every family has it’s own version of the classic vegetable pakora recipe so experiment away!
When dealing with hot oil, be careful and make sure to never leave it unattended on the stovetop. Remove your cooking vessel and hot oil from the heat as soon as you’re done cooking.
1 large potato, halved and thinly sliced
1 red or white onion, halved and thinly sliced
A handful of spinach, chopped (optional)
1/2 garam masala
5 tbsp white vinegar
4 tbsp dried fenugreek leaves
2 tbsp ginger, finely minced (optional)
1 1/2 cup of besan/gram flour (black chickpea flour)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except the water and oil. Add a few tablespoons of water at a time, combine the batter until it smooth and a bit goopy – the batter should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
2. On high heat, heat a few cups of oil in a heavy-bottom, deep-set frying pan or wok (adjust the amount of oil according to your cooking vessel; a wok can hold more oil than a frying pan). There should be enough oil in the cooking vessel so the pakoras are just floating in oil. One way to test if the oil is ready is to take the handle of a wooden spoon, dip it into the oil and if the oil starts to bubble vigorously around the spoon handle, the oil is ready.
3. Using your hands, a large spoon or 1/4 measuring cup, gently scoop in the batter. Depending on the size of your pan or wok, scoop in a few batches but don’t overcrowd the oil. Fry the pakoras for a few minutes until they turns golden brown. Remove from heat and let the pakora rest on a paper towel-lined plate or cookie sheet. If you find the pakoras are cooking too quickly on the outside, burning and slightly raw on the inside, lower the heat slightly.
4. Serve right away with condiments of your choice: typically tamarind chutney, mint chutney and/or ketchup.
Photography By: Naveen Atwal