It’s time to go beyond butter chicken

Butter chicken is a delicious South Asian dish beloved by many. Photo courtesy of NYT Cooking.


Butter chicken — in all its spicy and savory goodness — is a sensational dish that is loved by many. With its vibrant orange sauce, tender chicken and spice-filled flavor, the dish has made its way into mainstream American culture. On social media, TikTok in particular, South Asian food has been trending, with butter chicken in particular being quite popular. In Western culture, butter chicken is the poster child for South Asian food. As beloved as it is, it is not the only example of cultural South Asian cuisine.  

Butter chicken is winning the popularity contest

As one of the most popular Indian dishes, butter chicken is widely known, and rightfully so.  Traditionally called murgh makhani, it originated in the Punjab region of Northern India and has grown to develop quite the dedicated fanbase, both inside and outside of South Asia. However, South Asian food exists beyond the popularity bubble of butter chicken. It also exists beyond just Indian cuisine; South Asian cuisine consists of a multitude of regional and cultural foods spanning across the South Asian subcontinent. It encompasses various countries and cultures. But why does butter chicken remain so popular?

First-year pre-pharmacy major Raj Kadakia provided his thoughts as to why butter chicken is so well-loved.

“As far as taste goes, [butter chicken] is one of the most [comforting] foods,” Kadakia said. “It has meat. The creaminess of the sauce has tomato typically in it as well … When we get it over here in our [American] restaurants … they don’t make it really spicy, so people can like it … It feels almost like a tomato-basil-soup-type thing with chicken … That’s literally how people see it.”

Kadakia agrees that butter chicken is delicious, but could it possibly be overrated?   

Junior biochemistry major Rushda Hussein shared her thoughts on the question of whether or not butter chicken is overrated.

“I think it’s justifiably rated,” Hussein said. “It’s not too crazy of a dish. I think for someone who’s never had it before, it is a good thing for them to try.”

The variety of South Asian cuisine

Butter chicken is an undeniably delightful dish, but there are countless other foods that others say are just as delicious. South Asian cuisine is filled with a variety of ingredients and foods, and the use of those ingredients differs among ethnic and geographic regions. Taking this diversity into account, there are a plethora of other delicious foods as well. 

The countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are all part of the South Asian subcontinent, with Afghanistan and the Maldives considered to be South Asian countries by some. A combination of countless aromatic spices — such as turmeric, fennel, fenugreek, cardamom, curry leaves and saffron to name just a few — are almost always used. Meat is eaten more commonly in certain regions of South Asia than others, often due to religious reasons

South Asia’s religious diversity is a major contributor to its culinary diversity. Muslims abstain from pork, while many Hindus are often lacto-vegetarian. Cows are considered holy in Hinduism, so beef is not often eaten. Jainism strictly upholds the principle of non-violence, and this applies to eating meat and other living creatures as well. Some followers of Sikhism do not eat meat, but the general Sikh scholarly consensus is that eating meat is a personal choice. 

One of Hussein’s favorite aspects of South Asian cuisine is its variety.  

“Each region kind of has its own specialty,” Hussein said. “ For Gujaratis, we tend to have more vegetarian foods, because it’s primarily more of a Hindu society. But I know if you go to Hyderabad or a lot of [other regions in] Punjab, they have chicken and goat.”

Kadakia is also Gujarati and shared some details about the basics of Gujarati cuisine, especially with respect to daily household staples. 

“Where I’m from, we eat daal, bhaat, shaak [and] roti.” Kadakia said. “Daal is lentil soup. And that can vary, [since] there’s many different types of daal … Roti is the flatbread of where I’m from. A lot of times people know what naan is, and they hear about that all the time, but again [roti and other flatbreads are not] always represented … [And,] shaak is curry; some people call it subzi as well.”

First-year biology major Rida Jawad provided some insight into Pakistani cuisine, as someone who was born in Pakistan. 

“I grew up with a lot of South Asian food,” Jawad said. “I didn’t really like spicy food, so when I was little my parents would tone it down a bit … I would still eat South Asian food, [and] there’s this dish called zarda … [that’s] just like sweet rice.”

Although zarda is a sweet dish, it still uses a few key spices, mainly cardamom and saffron. It also often includes nuts and dried fruits. It is a sweet dish that is sometimes eaten alongside something savory, as opposed to being an individual dessert dish. 

Kadakia shared his thoughts on some of the more popular aspects of South Asian cuisine, especially in America.

“Most of my American friends tend to like more Punjabi food,” Kadakia said. “It has more meat [and] more of those comfort foods that people are accustomed to here.”  

Moving beyond the butter chicken bubble

Butter chicken is undoubtedly a fan favorite, but South Asian cuisine provides a diverse array of dishes that should also be tried. Hussein shared that one of her favorite dishes is nihari.

“My personal favorite [dish] is nihari,” Hussein said. “I think that’s a really good one. It’s [made] with beef usually. It’s almost like a stew.”

Nihari includes a handful of spices and seasonings that yield a delicious end result. It is the definition of a comfort food, with its warm spices and savory seasonings. 

Kadakia also shared a few of his favorite dishes as well, one of which was undhiyu, which is a Gujarati dish made with a variety of green vegetables cooked with fenugreek. It is from the city of Surat in Gujarat

There are a plethora of cultural foods that are specific to each cultural region within South Asia, and butter chicken is just one example of that. However, it is time to move outside of the comfort zone of butter chicken. 

Chicken 65 shares the vibrancy of butter chicken, but it offers more spice and a stir-fried kick. Try biryani for a rice dish that is filled with marinated meat, aromatic rice and a handful of delicious spices. Give haleem, a thick soup-like dish filled with shredded meat and lentils, a try when keeping warm this winter. 

South Asian cuisine is filled with delicacy after delicacy. Try something new during these colder months to find a new favorite. 

Local South Asian restaurants in the greater Indianapolis area to try:

Bombay Bazaar: 7233 Fishers Landing Dr, Fishers, IN 46038 

Hyderabad House: 8540 Castleton Corner Dr, Indianapolis, IN 46250 and 8840 N Michigan Rd, Unit 105 Indianapolis, IN, 46268 

Chapati: 4930 Lafayette Rd G, Indianapolis, IN 46254 

Biryani House: 4857 W 38th St, Indianapolis, IN 46254


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