Simply food


Delicious butter chicken with yellow rice and nan

Tikka masala and butter chicken have supplanted fish and chips as England’s top take away (what we call take out in North America) and they’re delicious.

Our family has enjoyed a good curry ever since Dad went on a lengthy assignment to Java, in what was then the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia and became a big fan of the Europeanized version of the local rice table. Dad would spend a whole day (usually Saturday) preparing dozens of dishes, although perhaps not as many as the 40 or more that accompany a really good rijsttafel, for as many as two dozen Sunday lunch guests. In those civilized days, lunch started at two and ended at sunset.

Rijsttafel at Kantjil & de Tijger, Amsterdam

Being an expat Brit, his Indonesian rijsttafel got blended in with his curry experiences in colonial India, where he had spent several months following the last unpleasantness with Japan. Curry was anglicised from the Tamil word kaṟi meaning ‘sauce.’ Dad’s big curry feast would feature two or three main curries, including a beef curry (showing a distinct colonial influence, since the cow is sacred to Hindus in India), a lamb curry and a vegetarian curry. Depending on the day these curries would vary from dry, where the curry stuck to the food in a delicious spicy crust, or wet where the ingredients were swimming in thick and spicy gravy. Typically, the meat curries were wet and the veggie curries were dry.

On the side, where guests could help themselves, would be a selection of smaller dishes, as well as mango chutney and lime pickles, including papadums, Bombay duck (actually dried salted cod), nasi goreng (fried rice), steamed white basmati rice, spiced pilau rice, pisang goreng (banana fritters), chopped fruits such as mangoes and bananas, chopped nuts, dried fruits such as sultanas, sambal iris (chopped fresh sweet onions, ripe tomatoes and a wicked chili sauce), chopped hard boiled eggs, tarka dal (lentils), raita (either peeled, seeded and chopped cucumbers or peeled and grated carrots and plain yoghurt, and topped with mint) and more.

We expats lived very well in places such as Cairo, Libya and East Africa and took our Sunday curry lunches very seriously. Dad, I suspect, was more involved in the preparation than most, because unusually for a guy in the 1950s and 60s he loved to cook. We had staff, like everyone else, but the cook was sidelined to prep work for the day. At the appointed hour a couple of dozen guests would appear to devour the feast and drink copious amounts of Pimms or shandy.

Living “Out of Africa” style in Kenya

One neighbour, in Kenya, signalled assembly by playing marching band music over strategically placed loud speakers in his garden, where the feast was set out on long tables on the Out of Africa style verandah. We ate scattered all over the grounds, in chairs in the shade under the trees. Uniformed ‘boys’ kept our plates full and glasses topped up and we weren’t allowed to leave until it was all gone, and usually after a long nap lying on the grass in the late afternoon heat.

All this came back to me a couple of years ago as Diane and I enjoyed an excellent rijsttafel at Kantjil & de Tijger in Amsterdam. We were visiting with Dutch friends and had met up with her godson, who lived nearby. Judging by the photos we limited ourselves to a mere 18 dishes. Sadly, I learned that in Indonesia, because of nationalist feelings, the rijsttafel has virtually disappeared.

Back in England, we discovered curry take away shops had replaced fish and chip establishments in the nation’s culinary heart. Honestly, the take away butter chicken and tikka masala (and ready meal versions from Marks and Spencer) are so good, it hardly seems worth the trouble to make this from scratch oneself. Authentic butter chicken originates from northern India, where it is considered a classic in Amritsar, Punjab. Chicken tikka masala has more obscure roots.

The dish may have been invented in Glasgow in the early seventies, by a cook from the British Bangladeshi community which then ran most Indian restaurants in the UK, based on chicken tikka, with the addition of a tomato sauce. There are also claims by three Punjabi restaurateurs, founders of the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi, India, where the dish was made ‘by chance’ by mixing leftover chicken in a tomato gravy, rich in butter and cream, in the fifties.

Now we live in North America and good butter chicken and chicken tikka masala is harder to come by. Needs must, and I start poring through my cookbooks, to make these dishes in my own kitchen. Better than that, I’m spending a week in England and will investigate recipes further.


Shopping list

  • 4 large chicken breasts, boned, skinned and cut into 2 or 3 pieces

First marinade

  • 2 limes, juiced
  • 1 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder
  • 1 tsp salt

Second marinade

  • 50 g natural yoghurt
  • 50 g double cream
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped roughly
  • 25 g fresh ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
  • 1 tsp Garam masala (recipe follows)
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • ¾ tsp ground cumin


  • 50 g ghee (clarified butter)
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed finely
  • 25 g fresh ginger, peeled and grated finely
  • 400 g tomato passata (uncooked tomato sauce, skinned and pureed)
  • ½ tsp Kashiri chilli powder
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp Garam masala
  • 1 tsp desiccated coconut (unsweetened)
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 200 ml water
  • 25 g cashew nuts
  • 25 g pumpkin seeds
  • 2 TBSP boiling water
  • 1 TBSP dried fenugreek leaves
  • ½ tsp white sugar
  • 45 ml double cream


  • Pinch chat masala (recipe follows)
  • Coriander (cilantro) leaves, fresh, chopped roughly, a handful
  • 15 g fresh ginger, grated finely

Preparation and cooking

  1. If you are going for the full authentic experience, make the garam masala and chat masala, which will keep well for a month.
  2. For the first marinade, mix the lime juice, chilli powder and salt in a large bowl, add the chicken pieces, cover and marinate in the fridge for 1 hour.
  3. For the second marinade, in a mortar with a pestle (or a mini-food processor), blend all the ingredients until smooth. Add the mix to the chicken, stir well until the chicken is well covered, cover and marinate in the fridge for a further 4 hours.
  4. Preheat the oven to 240°C/465° Remove the chicken from the marinade and thread the pieces onto barbecue skewers, slightly spaced out. Lay them on a wire rack over a metal pan and roast for 15—20 mins, until lightly charred but not cooked through, as it will finish cooking in the sauce. (TIP: Skip all the hassle and marinating and start here with some pre-cooked tandoori chicken.)
  5. While the chicken is roasting, make the sauce. Heat the ghee in a heavy saucepan (or wok pan) over medium heat. Add garlic and ginger and fry for 1 min. Stir in tomato sauce and simmer for 5 mins. Add all the remaining spices, coconut, salt and 100 ml water and simmer for another 10 mins.
  6. In the mortar, grind the cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds and boiling water into a paste, stir this into the sauce. When the chicken is ready, add it to the sauce, add another 100 ml water and simmer for another 10 minutes or more until the chicken is thoroughly cooked through. Finally, stir in the fenugreek leaves, sugar and cream and simmer for 2 more minutes.
  7. Transfer to a serving bowl, sprinkle on a pinch of chat masala, and garnish with fresh coriander and grated ginger. Serve with rice flavoured with turmeric and fried onions.


  • Servings: a good supply
  • Print

Shopping list

  • 1 TBSP black peppercorns
  • 2 TBSP cumin seeds
  • 2 TBSP coriander seeds
  • 2 tsp cardamom seeds (about 30—40 green pods)
  • 4 tsp whole cloves
  • 7 cm piece of cinnamon stick
  • 1 whole nutmeg

Preparation and cooking

  1. Roast all the spices apart from the nutmeg in a dry frying pan over medium heat for a couple of mins until toasted and aromatic. Cool.
  2. Grate the nutmeg, break up the cinnamon stick and add to a spice grinder or mortar. Grind everything to a fine powder. Store in a sealed container, in the dark, for up to a month.


  • Servings: a good supply
  • Print

Shopping list

  • 1 TBSP cumin seeds
  • 1 TBSP coriander seeds
  • 1 TBSP black peppercorns
  • 1 TBSP amchur (dried green mango powder)
  • 1 tsp heeng (asafoetida resin)
  • 1 TBSP Kashmiri chilli powder
  • 1 TBSP Kala namak (Himalayan black salt powder or chunks)
  • 1 TBSP salt

Preparation and cooking

  1. Roast the cumin, coriander and black pepper in a dry frying pan over a medium heat for 1—2 mins, until lightly toasted and fragrant. Cool.
  2. Combine all the ingredients in a spice mixer or mortar and grind into a fine powder.
  3. Store in a sealed container in the dark.

NOTE: Rick Stein’s India from which I adapted these recipes with appreciation, is published by BBC books to accompany his 2013 television series, and is a highly recommended read. A DVD of the series is also available.

Featured image: Butter chicken, yellow rice cooked with turmeric and hot nan bread

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