Butter chicken has helped me at every stage of my life – and has always united my family | Indian food and drink

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I remember my first taste of butter chicken. I must have been about 10 years old. My dad’s cousins used to marinate a whole chicken from their farm in yoghurt, spices, ginger, garlic and chilli, before cooking it over an open fire: not everyone owned a tandoor.

Everything they used was from their own land: deliciously sweet and tangy tomatoes, homemade yoghurt, white makhan (a cultured butter). It was such an experience – and such a beautiful dish – that throughout the long train journey home after visiting them, I would hassle my mum to make it for us back home. Those delicate spices, though, and the smoky flavour from cooking over an open fire, are impossible for me to replicate, even now.

My understanding of regional food came partly from summer holidays, partly from the fact that my dad worked at the steel plant. Here, he worked alongside others from all over India – and at school, my friends and I would eagerly peer into each other’s tiffin boxes, keen to see what exciting regional dishes we’d be able to share with each other that day.

Each mouthful of butter chicken taught me how one dish can vary so much. The spices are generally the same, but the techniques and methods that are used to make it vary so much.

With its sweetly spiced tomato and cream-based gravy, butter chicken is a comforting, warming dish that feels decadent thanks to its silky-smooth richness. It’s a dish that can be cooked with either breast meat or chicken thighs, with bones or without. The most important thing is that you marinate the chicken fully to allow the flavour of the spices to shine. For a truly authentic experience, enjoy it with crispy naan, perfectly soft in the middle, and a side of pickled sliced onions.

When I was a young girl, butter chicken was for special occasions only. Money was tight and dining out was a luxury saved for family holidays. My mum used to make her own version at home, but instead of cream, she used a combination of milk and yoghurt. It was only when I travelled with my family to the Punjab during school holidays that I was able to enjoy the different, beautiful texture and flavours of the butter chicken.

Since then, it’s a dish I’ve been fascinated by. If done well, whether with bones or without (I prefer the latter), it can be an incredibly smoky, succulent and satisfying creation.

My elder daughter, Reet, was just six months old when she had her first taste of butter chicken. Dining at a wedding in India, she sat on my lap and snatched a piece of chicken from my dish. Immediately, she screamed for more.

Since then, I began to make it for her – and later, for her younger sister Neev – at home. While still in primary school, Neev would come to my restaurant with her friends, and I already knew that each time I had to make them all the same dish: butter chicken with naan and a kachumber salad.

As it’s such a favourite, I’ve taught them both how to make this dish themselves. They’re aware that marinating is key – and that the sauce can be made beforehand and frozen if they are busy. Before she left home, I taught Reet a “cheat” version with tomato purée, to help her save both time and money.

I began to take a closer look at butter chicken – its history and the varied ways it can be prepared – when I started my business from home. At this time, chef Manjit Gill took me to the first ever Moti Mahal restaurant in Daryaganj, co-founded by three friends from Peshwar (now Pakistan) who had fled to this Delhi neighbourhood after the partition of India in 1947. Here, they created butter chicken, as well as dal makhani – black gram lentils with a creamy makhani base.

Butter chicken grew and grew in popularity, which led to it being copied by chefs across India, each creating their own version. During a recent visit to Punjab, I travelled to many parts of the region with my father and my friend, Ritu, to try different versions of it. My father has always been a lover of good food, and I have fond memories of him grinding spices in our kitchen to make the blends that mum used in her cooking. He loves to join me on journeys like these – and I think he’s still in awe of the fact that I cook and write about food for a living!

I have to say, the worst butter chicken I’ve eaten was during that visit to Punjab. In each of the 10 places I tried, all I could taste was the cream – and, at some, the pieces of chopped onion. When an area is famed for a particular dish, sadly many businesses spring up to capitalise on it, without focusing on doing it well.

With help from another friend, Reetika, her brother, Anmol, and his cousin, we went in search of the ultimate butter chicken in Delhi. I found it at the Moti Mahal in the Greater Kailash district. The building is beautiful. It still has its original old doors and interior decor. The butter chicken is just as it should be – smoky, creamy and not too sweet or tangy, a perfect balance of flavours. Enjoying their butter chicken alongside steaming hot plain naan and pickled shallots, I felt like I was in that scene from When Harry Met Sally

The main problem with replicating this beautiful dish in England is the ingredients. Though it’s easy to get hold of the spices, the texture and taste of our tomatoes simply doesn’t compare to those in the Punjab. Nevertheless, here’s my go-to recipe when I’m making butter chicken at home.

Personally, I’ve always made my butter chicken without onions, but on my recent butter chicken trail, I found places where onions are added to the gravy. Like anything, food evolves and changes, based on region and personal taste. Follow your heart and cook it the way you want it.

This recipe is one chef Gill taught me. It’s popular with Punjabi truck drivers, who stop at dhabas (roadside restaurants) and it’s the one I use for fundraising events at home. Chef Gill made me understand that slow cooking butter chicken in large pots makes it taste so much better – and gives it a much creamier texture.

For me, serving butter chicken in my restaurant (it was one of my most popular dishes) allowed me to take people back to my roots – to taste the food I grew up eating. It’s one of those recipes that always fills me with nostalgia, and with hope, love, power and knowledge at each step of my career. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Butter chicken

Serves 4
For the marinade:
boneless chicken breast 1kg, diced (4-5cm cubes)
Greek yoghurt 70g
ginger 15g, grated
garlic 3 large cloves, grated
garam masala 1 tsp
tandoori masala 1 tsp
cumin powder 1 tsp
coriander powder 1 tsp
red Kashmiri chilli powder 2 tsp
salt 1 tsp
lemon juice of ½

For the sauce:
unsalted butter 50g
ginger 20g, roughly chopped
garlic 4 large cloves, roughly chopped
tomatoes 750g, roughly chopped
cashew nuts 75g
garam masala 1 tsp
tandoori masala 1 tsp
coriander powder 1 tsp
red Kashmiri chilli powder 1 tsp
salt 1 tsp
sugar 1 tsp
double cream 100ml, plus extra to drizzle when serving
water 400ml
methi (dried fenugreek) leaves 2 tsp
green cardamom seeds 6-8, crushed

Mix all the marinade ingredients together in a bowl until combined well. Add the chicken, coating the pieces in the marinade, then cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge, ideally overnight. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Place the marinated chicken on a baking tray and bake for 15 minutes until the meat is tender and cooked.

To make the sauce, heat the butter in a large saucepan. Add the ginger and garlic and cook for 2 minutes on a medium heat. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook until they are soft, about 8 minutes. Add the cashew nuts, spices, chilli powder, salt and sugar and stir, cooking for another 4 minutes. Remove from the heat. Leave to cool, add the sauce to the blender to combine until smooth. Pour it back into the saucepan, add cream, water, methi and ground cardamom seeds. Heat for 10 minutes over a low heat in a covered pan. Add the cooked chicken, stir, cook for another 12 minutes. Enjoy eating.

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