Before a few days ago, I knew almost nothing about butter chicken. I had seen it in Indian restaurants, and knew its was chicken in a creamy sauce. I had smelled the spiced, tomato and chicken aroma and knew its color- sometimes more yellow, sometimes more orange. But after stumbling upon nearly two pounds of chicken of the woods, and tasting a little of the pan fried mushroom, the flavor seemed perfectly suited to the smell of the dish.
And so I went about my research, looking at different recipes to learn a little about the ingredients, proportions and techniques commonly used. The first thing I learned was that the butter in butter chicken is more than just a name. Every recipe I found was swimming in butter, with a healthy dose of heavy cream on top of that. I decided to embrace the lipids- I’m not going to eat butter chicken of the woods every day, and besides, chicken of the woods is lower fat than plain chicken.
Chicken of the woods is an orange or yellow polypore that grows in clusters on dead or dying trees. As the age they become tough and more woody, but the younger mushrooms have a soft and sort of stringy texture. They are a little tough to clean as they have no problem growing around and incorporating leaves, pine needles, dirt, twigs and other bits of the forest. They also might be infested by small, white worms- a few are okay to pick out, but if there are too many your mushroom is unlikely to taste good and you should probably leave them in the woods. Please remember caution when foraging, and use the golden rule- when in doubt, leave it out- in order to avoid misidentification incidents.
It is extraordinary how similar these mushrooms are to chicken- although the last time I tasted chicken I was 5 years old, I know the smell and the texture from when I worked in a kitchen- and the similarities between the bird and the fungi are somewhat mind blowing. If you are not foraging inclined, you can substitute in a different chicken alternative such as Trader Joe’s Chickenless Strips, although I have it on the authority of a recent omnivore that chicken of the woods are the most convincing substitution.
The cooking process is as follows- first, melt the butter, add the spices and then the mushroom, let the mushroom absorb the spices and butter, add the cream and let simmer until cooked. The last step is to stir in cilantro or parsley- although I think cilantro is the tastier choice, I tend to favor parsley as it is very similar and people don’t have the same soapy taste reaction that some do to cilantro. A grain is pretty much needed to pick up the extra sauce- I ate this with a brown rice.
Butter Chicken of the Woods (Vegan Butter Chicken)
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 small onion
- 1 ½lbs chicken of the woods mushrooms
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) of earth balance or other vegan butter
- 16 oz can of coconut cream
- 1 TBSP tomato paste
- 1 loosely packed cup of parsley or cilantro, chopped
Spices (measure out and mix together)
- 2 tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp curry powder
- 1 tsp turmeric powder
- 1 tsp nutritional yeast
- 1 tsp chili powder
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp powdered ginger
- ½ tsp cumin seeds
- ½ tsp salt
- ½ tsp pepper
1. Dice the onion, mince the garlic, and clean and cut the chicken of the woods into bite sized pieces. Use salt water to clean if needed.
2. Melt the butter in a large skillet, and add the onion and garlic. Saute for a few minutes until the onions are beginning to become translucent, then add in the spice mixture, stirring well.
3. After a few seconds, add the chicken of the woods, tossing to make sure all of the mushrooms are covered in the butter and spices. Let cook for about 5 minutes, flipping occasionally so both sides cook.
4. Next add the tomato paste and coconut cream, stirring until the paste is mixed in. Heat until it bubbles before lowering the heat and allowing to simmer for 10 minutes. Finally, turn off the heat and stir in the cilantro or parsley. Serve with rice.