The city's best butter chicken
Who serves up Christchurch's best butter chicken takeaway? Ewan Sargent tries six and discovers the field varies widely.
Butter chicken, or chicken makhani, is pretty much the most popular Indian dish in the world.
It's just as popular in my house, though I personally tend to range a little farther and a little spicier when choosing from Indian menus.
However, a butter chicken will always be in the family line-up because it's the safe option. It's the first exotic sauce the kids could handle having on rice and I suspect that's the case for many families. This early allegiance stays and probably accounts for the lasting popularity.
But to be fair, it's a dish that has much going for it in its own right. It's rich and satisfying and, done well, can be as rewarding as more challenging gravies.
Technically it is a tandoor dish. The chicken should be marinated, then cooked in a tandoor oven, then served in a spicy butter, tomato and cream sauce. How much this process is followed in Christchurch is hard to tell. A smothering creamy sauce can hide a multitude of approaches.
The dish originated in the 1950s at the Moti Mahal Restaurant in Delhi. Butter and tomato was added to the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays from which they used to sell hundreds of portions of tandoori chicken every day.
Butter chicken is a subjective dish. It varies widely and the subtleties of differences between what is butter chicken and what is chicken tikka masala - a British invention - can easily blur.
The top two curries in the tasting were considerably different interpretations but, in both, the balance of the dish and the sophistication stood out.
All orders were phoned in and only three restaurants checked how hot (spicy) we wanted the sauce: Coriander's, Everest and Curry Time. I like that Tandoori Palace states curries taste best at their proper level of spiciness and I went with their offering. The other two offered up the default mild. We stayed with mild, except for Tandoori Palace, but that was pretty mild. All curries came with rice.
MAYUR INDIAN RESTAURANT 105 RICCARTON RD. $15 **
This was a startlingly coloured dish, with its bright reddish-orange colour. The flavour was disappointing. It brought to mind a sweet tomato soup with small tender chicken pieces in it. The chicken was tender and showed obvious marination, but the sauce was hard to like.
CURRY TIME, 284 MAIN NORTH RD, REDWOOD. $15.50 **
The menu said it was tandoor-baked chicken in a creamy masala sauce. The chicken was dark red from heavy marination, but tender. The sauce was reddish-orange with a sweet tomato flavour and a striking cinnamon note that didn't appeal.
TANDOORI PALACE, 71 ILAM RD. $15.50 ***
The colour was brownish-yellow and it tasted more like a general curry gravy with a dominant cumin flavour coming through. There was little sign of tomato. The chicken had been strongly marinated. The pieces looked large but turned out to be smaller slices that had been marinaded together and had not unpeeled during the cooking process.
EVEREST INDIAN RESTAURANT, 608 FERRY RD, WOOLSTON. $15 ***
This was sweetish yet had a strong tomato paste flavour. There were large chunks of tender chicken and this had a strong following among the rest of the family who thought it close to matching a particular food court curry they like a lot.
ARJEE BHAJEE 13 RICCARTON RD. $17.50 ****
Arjee Bhajee says it doesn't use food colouring and its mustardy yellow butter chicken is its interpretation. It impressed almost immediately. The sauce was very creamy, almost silky, with a gentle spicy heat and a lovely balance. There was little sign of tomato. It felt sophisticated. The chicken was super tender and this butter chicken was moreish.
CORIANDER'S ETHNIC INDIAN RESTAURANT. 76 EDGEWARE RD, ST ALBANS. $19 *****
It was the chicken that pushed it to five stars. Coriander's serves up "boneless chicken half cooked in the tandoor oven, then finished in a tomato and cream butter sauce with a touch of fenugreek". This was a master class in the takeaway dish. The colour was reddish-orange and tomato was in the mix, but everything was balanced. The sauce was thick, rich, yet light, with a depth of background spice. The showstopper was the chicken's overt smoky tandoor flavour that immediately made you think, this is how it should be.
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