Mumbai to Brooklyn by way of Hyderabad: Butter Chicken & Brooklyn Raga Massive

A portrait from Brooklyn and Hyderabad

This portrait celebrates the magic of blending the stories of two people into a new story:  an evolved family recipe for Butter Chicken, and a musical crush that follows the same evolution.


Brooklyn Raga Massive

Brooklyn Raga Massive (BRM) describes themselves as “a collective of forward thinking musicians rooted in and inspired by Indian classical music.” I’ve been a devoted follower since the early days of the weekly shows at the old Tea Lounge in Park Slope, and what they are doing just keep getting better and better. 

(BRM) pairs so well with this Butter Chicken recipe because both have deep roots but are deeply enriched by applying additional influences tastes. 

Jam sessions are always fun, but their weekly BRM jazz sessions are quite literally out of this world.  The range of global musicians, instruments and styles, and the pure beauty that results is breathtaking and for me no less then spiritual.  I don’t mean to be hyperbolic; it’s just that good.

And actually it’s probably the musical equivalent of my drawings:  taking a bunch of seemingly disparate shapes, putting them together via a prescribed but open structure, and let the integrity of each blend into new, delightful whole.  But I digress….


Murgh Makhani

Like many comfort foods, Butter Chicken (aka Murgh Makhani) is a humble recipe born out of leftovers.  Apparently, a Punjabi chef mixed leftover tandoori-cooked chicken in a tomato broth along with butter and cream, and the rest was history. 

butter chicken and chapati on traditional indian serving trays
butter chicken and chapati

The version my husband grew up with in Hyderabad replaced the cream with butter, added cashews, and had the chicken cooked in the curry/gravy itself.

Having already fallen in love with garam masala, and beginning to be smitten by velvety curries thickened with nuts, Butter Chicken quickly fell into the regular repertoire at our home. Even the kids routinely choose when asked what to make for dinner guests.

The below version is further adapted from the recipe that I gathered from my mother-in-law in 2007 (without measurements, of course). Here, credit is due to my supertaster (and brutally honest) husband and kids.

butter chicken at a cooking lesson we conducted. side by side pans


BRM Video

I share a birthday with John Coltrane. So when Brooklyn Raga Massive began marking his birthday a tribute each year, it felt like a birthday present! I attended each time they’ve done it in September in Brooklyn, and the video below is from the one at Pioneer Works, which was especially wonderful. For me, Pioneer Works has some special spirit, or is a personal universe wormhole or something. I feel something just from entering, so when there is also music or art that speaks deeply to me, I float off this plane.

At any rate, now they also perform it other times, and it’s even an album you can check out here.

And to see the BRM @ Pioneer Works Magic for yourself, mark your calendar for the Ragas Live Festival. If you aren’t in the New York Area, you can also stream it live, and please make sure to have home-cooked Indian food on hand to deepen your experience! We’ve got you covered with recipes for all sorts of home-style Indian dishes that are not hard to make.


Eating With Hands

Perhaps an ambassador in training, our young son has always delighted in telling newcomers around our table about eating with our hands. 

He’ll of course demonstrate with whatever we are eating, and depending on our guests’ upbringing, sometimes it takes them a bit to decide to try it.

Usually most kids are glad to shed cutlery in favor of fingers, but last year, one 5 year old girl wasn’t so sure, pausing and looking around to assess the situation. Was it a trick? Would she get in trouble? It didn’t jive with the strict French table manners she was learning at home. With her mom’s encouragement, she dove in, and hasn’t looked back. Find your inner child and channel her.

My husband likes to tell people that eating with ones’ hands makes the food taste better because it is like a 6 sense, adding to the flavor and sensation of the eating experience.  I’ve also read that it has an Ayurvedic nature to it because the fingers essentially make a powerful mudra when scooping the food and bringing it to the mouth.

From a practical standpoint, using ones finger helps in 2 ways: as a temperature guage to prevent burned mouths, and also as a preliminary line of defense against whole spices and bones.  Whole spices are used quite often in Indian cooking, and while the flavor they impart is lovely, it’s never fun to bite into some cinnamon bark, or star anise, or my least favorite: cardamom.  I LOVE the flavor of cardamom and use it in all sorts of dishes… but when I bite into one in a curry I am not a happy camper.

In fact, Indian homes are designed to support this custom: there is usually a sink in the dining room because it is important to wash ones’ hands before and after eating.  Though both hands are washed, only the right hand should be used for eating because the left is considered dirty).

If you haven’t before, give it a try!   If eating with bread, rip a small piece and use it to grab a bit of curry.  If eating with rice, use fingertips and thumb to combine rice and curry, then close the tips of your fingers around the desired bite (fingers remain unbent).  Then bring the bite to your mouth with a bit of a twist in the wrist.  Ooh! which reminds me: I must include a video from the amazing “Stop Eating it Wrong” series: