I have a thing for books that present food as medicine. Chocolat, Like Water for Chocolate…..and now Karma and the Art of Butter Chicken, are absolute favorites. Written by the acclaimed food writer turned novelist Monica Bhide, it extols the pleasures of friendship, giving back to those who have helped you, the power of love, and ultimately, the healing powers of cooking for those you love, and the pleasure of well-cooked food. Who couldn’t adore this book?
The premise of this book is simple, and lovely. Set in present-day India, it tells the story of Eshaan, a young man who is raised by Buddhist monks. He has a heart that you could say is made of butter, so soft that it melts. Having nearly starved to death as a child before the kindly monks took him in after his mother’s tragic death, he one day has the idea to provide a hot meal to anyone in need. Given the vast population of New Delhi and the amount of poverty that exists in this city, to call Eshaan’s idea a momentous task is an understatement. But he starts his restaurant, and it is not quite what he envisions it. Of course, we all know that nothing ever quite turns out the way we plan or desire.
Eshaan is such a sympathetic and kindhearted character you can’t help but cheer him on, even though he’s not the most practical-minded individual. From the get-go, he is focused on only one thing – feeding people in his restaurant and asking that they pay only what they can afford. Naturally, this leads to a horde of beggars and individuals who have zero money and who can’t – or don’t – pay for a thing. And of course, human nature being what it is, he also encounters those ungrateful types who complain about the food, who urinate on the floor of his immaculately prepared restaurant………..and these are the people he is trying to help!
The scene that touched me the most is featured both at the very beginning and again toward the end, when Eshaan gets his golden chance to appear on the famous cooking TV competition show to earn money to fund his restaurant. The scene is given context when Eshaan’s turn comes to show the judges what he has cooked, the proviso being a dish that epitomized their childhood. Eshaan initially plans to make butter chicken, in his words, “a simple tomato, butter and cream sauce” for chicken that his mother used to make when she could afford it. But the crushing poverty of his childhood has stayed in his heart and soul all these years, and at the end of the competition, he throws away the dish he’s made and tells the judges, very poignantly, that the taste of his childhood was starvation and an empty bowl. I got choked up here and had to stop reading for a bit.
Though of course I was inspired to cook the title dish, it was this passage that spoke to me the most. “In fact, I say a prayer for the spices, sparse as they may be, to help heal the person who eats the food. That reminds me. I have only one rule in this kitchen. The cooks’ energy gets passed into the dishes. Only food prepared with love will nurture. If not, it will just be another meal,” he said, placing his hand on his heart. That is so much how I cook – I try to always cook with love and pass that love on to those who enjoy my food. Because food is love.
Anyway, this is the method for classic Indian butter chicken that worked for me, based on the Little Spice Jar‘s awesome recipe, with the requisite tweaks by yours truly.
For the meat marinade:
6-7 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
3 generous tablespoons tandoori masala
2 tablespoons ginger-garlic paste
3/4 cup Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon olive oil (or groundnut oil)
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee), or a mixture of butter and oil
1 large red onion, sliced into thin half-moons
1 generous tablespoon ginger-garlic paste
3/4 cup heavy cream
In a large plastic freezer bag, mix the chicken with the tandoori masala, ginger-garlic paste, yogurt and oil. Marinate for at least 3 hours before cooking, in the refrigerator.
Melt the clarified butter in a Dutch oven or other heavy pan. Saute the onions about 7 minutes, until they’re translucent and you can smell the delicious scent wafting up at you. Add a pinch of sea salt to keep them from burning.
Add the next spoonful of ginger-garlic paste to the onions, and stir well. Then, add the two cans of tomatoes, the chili powder, the coriander, cumin garam masala, and fenugreek seeds. Simmer, covered, for about 30 minutes.
Whip out your most excellent stick blender and blend the sauce until it is rendered down into a rich, red sauce. Turn the heat off, cover and let sit while you prepare the chicken.
In another pan, add a bit more clarified butter and brown the chicken pieces. Make sure to use tongs and shake off the excess marinade beforehand. Cook for up to 10 minutes, to fully brown the chicken pieces.
Pour the butter tomato sauce over the chicken pieces, and heat through. Add the cream and bring to a low simmer.
I served this over basmati rice cooked in chicken broth, into which I put a few crushed cardamom pods, which add to the subtle flavor and scent. I have to say, this dish was FANTASTIC! The acidity of the tomatoes is perfectly offset by the richness of the butter and the cream, and the chicken marinade make the meat incredibly tender. Garnished with cilantro or parsley, it is a delicious dish.