Butter Chicken is a favourite globally and with good reason. It a proverbial hug in a bowl with tomato-ey, creamy, spicy sauce… but hold up on the chicken and make mine with chickpeas, please. Here’s how I took a recipe from my mom’s copy of 50 Great Curries of India, by Camelia Punjab circa 1990- something, and turned it my personal version of the ultimate ‘butter’ chickpea curry.
I love Indian cuisine- and culture and philosophy- in a way that’s genuine and leaves me hungry for more. For years my favourite food has been Indian and my favourite curries have been dals, palaks and kormas and I usually used to order vegetarian variants before becoming vegetarian.. and later (mostly) vegan. This is because Indian food is so complex and well thought out that the vegetarian dishes lack nothing that the meat dishes have.
David Chang recently said in his second season of Ugly Delicious that he thinks Indian food is the most underrated in the world. Maybe I’m lucky coming from South Africa- our large Indian population means we have an amazing Indian food available and I think most us who get to indulge in it are very appreciative. The centuries-old recipes and techniques of Indian cookery deserve the utmost respect and that’s why I’ve chosen to call this Indian Inspired.
The biggest substitution in Butter Chicken would be the chicken which we’ve covered, is now chickpeas but what about the butter? I’ve just used sunflower oil here but vegan margarine or butter would also do the trick, most of the creaminess comes from coconut milk that gets cooked down with tinned tomatoes and spices. Now here within lies a proverbial bone of contention- when I spoke to my Indian friends for advice a more than one said coconut milk wouldn’t be the ideal choice of their moms or grandmothers… They said cream or yoghurt, even curds would be better but obviously that’s not an option for vegans. So yes coconut milk isn’t the best but if you’re plant-based, it’ll do.
I like this spice blend but I also cook for other people who really can’t deal with chilli so I’ve put in a small measurement of Garam Masala. Increase it for more heat as you like. Most of the ingredients and spices are pantry staples with the exception of fenugreek- if you don’t have, it’s OK to leave it out. You can also use plain paprika if you don’t have smoked paprika and add some liquid smoke if you have on hand. Without further due, here’s the recipe for a comforting bowl of ‘butter’ chickpea curry.
Vegan "Butter' Chickpea Curry
- 2 tbsp canola or sunflower oil
- 1 large onion
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 3-5 cm ginger grated
- 2 tsp ground cumin
- 1 tsp ground coriander
- 1 tsp smoked paprika
- 1/2- 1 tsp garam masala add more if you like spice
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp fenugreek
- 1 420g tin chopped tomato
- 1 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 420g tin chickpeas rinsed and drained
- 1 420g tin coconut milk
- 1/2 lemon juiced
- Add the oil to a medium, thick bottom pot over medium heat. Test one piece of onion, if it sizzles then the oil is hot enough add all the onions. Stir for a minute then turn the heat down to low. Let the onions sweat on a low temperate, you might need to add a small amount of water so the onions don't catch or stick to the bottom of pan. Letting this part of the process be slow is very important, please don't try to speed it up on a high heat. Once the onions have become translucent, they should be ready. If you want to taste test, they should have become sweet.
- Add the garlic and ginger, let it cook for 30 seconds before adding the salt, cumin, corriander, paprika, garam masala, cinnamon and fenugreek. Stir into the onions, ginger and garlic until the spices become fragrant. Make this quick and stir constantly so the garlic doesn't become bitter.
- Add the tin of tomatoes, tomato paste and the coconut milk and stir to combine. Simmer for around 10 minutes, letting it the sauce thicken and stirring every 2 to 3 minutes so it doesn't catch at the bottom of the pot.
- Optional step: Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce until smooth. Not necessary but nice to do!
- Stir in the chickpeas and let them heat through for at least 5 minutes. If they're in longer, more of flavours of the curry soak in. Taste, adding any additional salt or other seasonings if you'd like. For more heat, add ground chilli or chilli flakes, alternatively, cayenne pepper should do the trick. Just before you're ready to serve, take off of the heat and stir the lemon juice through the dish.
- Serve with your choice of white or brown basmati rice, naan or roti, or if you'd like a lighter meal, fresh baby spices. You can garnish with fresh chopped coriander if it's in season, otherwise dry-fried dedicated coconut with fennel, fresh chopped chilli and coriander is also great. I like bottled pickled lemon from our local Indian grocer, The Spice Co, on the side with almost every curry I make at home.
- *If you have whole tomatoes you can mash the tomatoes against the side of the spot with a wooden spoon or use a potato masher if you have one
- * As detailed in the body text, some of my Indian said coconut milk isn't considered ideal by a lot of Indian people because it's not considered the right flavour profile but as a vegan substitute is one of the best alternatives available. There are also people who by Ayurvedic traditional should try to limit coconut consumption. I've read that other Ayurvedic practitioners use oat milk but I've yet to try it in curries so I can't vouch for it.