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The Indian Classic: Butter Chicken

The heritage of butter chicken is steeped in India’s partition history. But the delicious chicken dish, which began as a simple working-class meal, has evolved to straddle exciting new avatars.
The humble butter chicken is one of the most popular Indian dishes globally.

Ask any meat-eating Delhiite about his favourite dish and more often than not, the reply will be butter chicken. “It’s comfort food. After mineral water and dal makhani, it’s probably the most ordered dish at our restaurants,” says Zorawar Kalra, founder and director of Massive Restaurants which has restaurants such as Made in Punjab, Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra and Farzi Café, among others, within his portfolio.

But the love affair with butter chicken is not restricted to just Delhi or even India. It has global appeal. In 2019, butter chicken was the second most searched for Indian dish online globally, the first being biryani. Almost 4 lakh people searched for it every month, with biryani throwing up 4.5 lakh searches.

The Kiwis love butter chicken so much that McDonald’s launched a Butter Chicken Pie in New Zealand. Post the lockdown in 2020, New Zealanders ordered 1,300 butter chickens in 89 days from a restaurant in Gisborne. Butter chicken is also rated as the most popular dish in Auckland, Christchurch and Tauranga. 

Last year in Ontario, Canada, butter chicken was the most ordered dish for dinner. Supermarkets in metros across the world stock butter chicken ready-to-eat meal boxes as well as butter chicken masala for those who want to try it at home.

KFC Philippines’ limited edition garlic butter chicken.

The current edition of Masterchef Australia, airing on Disney+Hotstar had New Delhi-born contestant Depinder Chhibber making a butter chicken dish – a tangy and succulent dish served with the classic accompaniments of pickled onions, mint chutney and soft laccha parathas.

A recent news break tells us that KFC Philippines has announced the comeback of a crowd favourite, their limited edition garlic butter chicken, a crispy fried chicken coated in savoury-sweet garlic-butter glaze. 

And to think that butter chicken began its life in a humble bazaar of Peshawar, in un-partitioned India.

The Origin

The origin of the butter chicken has all the makings of a Bollywood film. There is the tragic partition of India-Pakistan, the never-say-die spirit of the Punjabi refugees who crossed the border and started their lives from scratch in Delhi, and a dispute about who created this classic dish. Most importantly, the inception of the original butter chicken is tied to the evolution of another favourite dish – the tandoori chicken.

It all started in Peshawar (now in Pakistan), where nearly 100 years ago, a man named Mokha Singh Lamba set up a small restaurant. The restaurant’s young chef, Kundan Lal Gujral, decided to experiment by skewering yoghurt marinated pieces of chicken and sticking them into the tandoor (which was previously used only for bread). Thus was born the extremely popular tandoori chicken.

Kundan Lal Gujral
Kundan Lal Gujral moved from Peshawar to Delhi, post partition.

Post-partition, Gujral moved to Delhi and set up his restaurant, Moti Mahal in Daryaganj. While he manned the restaurant, the kitchen was run by Kundal Lal Jaggi (they were both named Kundan Lal. See what I mean by the dish’s history having Bollywood trappings!). And this is where the dispute began, with families of both the Kundan Lals claiming butter chicken as their legacy.

As per the original story, Kundan Lal Gujral, who was an astute businessman, realised that the tandoori chicken hanging on skewers above the tandoor all day will dry out if unsold. Those were the days when the refrigerator had not become a common acquisition. To avoid wastage, he came up with the idea of creating a basic gravy with some tomatoes, cream, butter and spices to immerse the tandoori chicken pieces in, thereby increasing their shelf life.    

But here is the twist: According to Kundan Lal Jaggi’s family, Gujral was the gracious host at Moti Mahal while it was Jaggi who helmed the kitchen. Jaggi created the butter chicken accidentally when one day a group of refugees turned up just as the restaurant was about to shut, and there wasn’t enough tandoori chicken to feed all of them. He prepared a gravy of tomatoes, butter, cream and some spices, and dunked the tandoori chicken pieces in it to increase the quantity and feed everyone.

And thus, the butter chicken was born.

Whichever story you may buy into, it is indisputable that Moti Mahal in Daryaganj is the home of the butter chicken.

Moti Mahal in Delhi’s Daryaganj is the birthplace of the butter chicken.

In its heydays, the restaurant was extremely popular with celebrities and world leaders. India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru was a patron and so were American presidents, John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, who dropped in for a meal on their official visits to India. Freedom fighter and independent India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad reportedly even told the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that while in India he must make two visits – to the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Moti Mahal in Delhi.

While Gujral’s family still owns the brand Moti Mahal and has franchises all over the world, Jaggi’s family opened the Daryaganj restaurant in Delhi’s Aerocity in 2019 and has expanded to a few more branches since then.

Here is another interesting story about butter chicken. ITC, which serves the best Indian regional cuisine among all luxury hotels, has had a troubled relationship with the quintessentially Delhi dish. They used to make a delicious version at Bukhara in ITC Maurya, New Delhi.

But then the dictat from the top asked the chefs to discontinue the dish since Bukhara was about kebabs and not curries. The Quershis, who ran ITC’s Dum Pukht restaurants, based their menu on Avadhi cuisine and had no space for Punjabi dishes such as butter chicken. So, for years, butter chicken remained the preserve of Moti Mahal, till newer, younger chefs from independent restaurants made it their own. ITC eventually put the butter chicken dish on the menu of its popular restaurant, Pavilion in ITC Maurya, and made it a part of its new gourmet delivery menu.

Author, food historian and Delhi resident Anoothi Vishal says it is the simplicity of the flavours and the dish that makes butter chicken acceptable to large sections of people. 

So, what makes butter chicken so popular?

What is it about the tomato-based, reddish-orange, buttery and creamy butter chicken that makes it so popular? Author, food historian and Delhi resident Anoothi Vishal says it is the simplicity of the flavours and the dish that makes it acceptable to large sections of people. 

“Butter chicken replaced the more complex gravies of Mughlai food. You needed a certain palate to appreciate those complex flavours, while butter chicken’s simpler flavours were more acceptable to a larger audience.

“Moreover, butter chicken has tomatoes rich in natural glutamate, which is a flavour enhancer and contributes to the dish’s umami character,” she explains.

Butter chicken’s tomato-based gravy enjoys a universal appeal.

Zorawar Kalra’s father, the great Jiggs Kalra, referred to as the Czar of Indian cuisine, made a butter chicken recipe that continues to be very popular even today. Says Zorawar: “Butter chicken is not an acquired taste. It is a tomato sauce with good masalas, cream and butter. You can’t go wrong with something like that. But the genius was in marrying it with tandoori chicken, in adding the kasoori methi and getting the balance right – not sweet, not spicy.” 

Kalra recently started a cloud-kitchen based home-delivery brand called Butter Delivery, which is an ode to Jiggs Kalra’s butter chicken recipe. The menu, which features a limited number of dishes, focuses on traditional and comforting Indian meals. Currently serving in Delhi-NCR, Butter Delivery will soon be launched in nine cities across the country.

Rajdeep Kapoor, Area Chef (ITC Northern Region) and Executive Chef, ITC Maurya, New Delhi, who introduced butter chicken on the menu of Pavilion, the all-day dining restaurant at the hotel in August 2015, says it has been the most popular dish on the dine-in menu as well as on the home-delivery menu. “We use desi tomatoes and our butter chicken is creamy but light. The right balance of butter, cream and tomato are essential.” 

He contends it is popular with Indians and foreigners alike as the tomato-based gravy enjoys a universal appeal.

Zorawar Kalra recently started a cloud-kitchen based home-delivery brand called Butter Delivery, which is an ode to Jiggs Kalra’s butter chicken recipe.

Butter chicken’s various avatars: Fine-dine to QSR

Celebrity chef Saransh Goila, who set up the delivery-only model Goila’s Butter Chicken recently, has also taken his brand to London. His menu includes innovative – or blasphemous, depending on who you ask – spins on the traditional dish. Diners can order a butter chicken biryani, a butter chicken burger, chips with butter chicken gravy, and even a butter chicken khichdi.

In Delhi, you can order a ‘break-up wala’ butter chicken – extra spicy chicken that will help you through any misery, or a ‘dietwala butter chicken’ – homestyle, light and medium-spicy with no khoya or cream, besides six different styles of butter chicken dish, customised 27 different ways, from Yours Truly Butter Chicken. 

The state-of-the-art cloud kitchen is the brainchild of Sumit and Chiquita Gulati, the husband-wife duo behind the popular restaurant, Spice Market. Sumit is the second generation of the Gulati family, which runs the restaurant in Delhi’s Pandara Market, an institution when it comes to butter chicken.

Their bespoke butter chicken menu allows you to have it your way – with or without bone. Your butter chicken could be made from shredded or boneless chicken or chicken chunks. It could be smokier, spicier, and so on. You can also determine the quantity while ordering: for one person, a couple, or a family.

On the supermarket shelves are spice mixes that you can use to make your butter chicken at home. The Kohinoor Punjabi Butter Chicken Masala is infused with red chilli, coriander, garlic, salt, ginger, turmeric, clove, cumin, white pepper, black cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg, star anise, and more! The ITC Chef Butter Chicken Cooking Paste is made using tomato paste, sunflower oil, dehydrated onions, spices, milk solids, salt, sugar, coriander, fenugreek seeds and more!

The ready spice mix makes cooking butter chicken a breeze. Add some butter, the spice mix and chicken, and voila, you have a home version ready.  

Chef-entrepreneur Tarun Sibal is launching his own brand called Tarun Sibal Butter Chicken in Bangalore in end-August.

Butter chicken with a twist

Tarun Sibal, the chef-entrepreneur of the highly successful Titlie in Goa and StreetStorrys in Bangalore, refers to himself as a ‘Punjabi puttar’ who can map Delhi according to the butter chicken joints across the city. He is launching his brand called Tarun Sibal Butter Chicken in Bangalore in end-August. “For me, butter chicken is more than just a dish. It’s a celebration and I want to pass on that joy to my guests,” says Sibal.

Sibal’s butter chicken will be delivered in a glass jar and will come with a bottle of smoked butter infusion that you can pour on top of the butter chicken for that extra smoky flavour. Each portion will serve 2-3 people. 

Sibal says there will be a couple of other goodies as well. “The beauty of butter chicken is that there is no secret ingredient or potli masala. It’s all about the quality of the produce, the tartness of the tomatoes, the cream and the tandoori chicken done right,” he adds.

The chef is launching the brand in Bangalore as he already has a base there, thanks to StreetStorrys, but he hopes to take it to other parts of the country.

The universal appeal of butter chicken has led to restaurants and chefs to experiment with its flavour. You now can indulge in butter chicken pizza, butter chicken tacos, butter chicken pasta, and even butter chicken samosas. Vishal says it is the cafesisation of all sorts of mass or bazaar food as restaurants try to give them a gourmet character. “It is a natural evolution.”

“The challenge with restaurants in India is that they need to give people things which are comforting but are still new,” she adds. The flavours are comforting and known, but the avatar is brand new. Butter chicken lends itself to that.

“It’s a universally acceptable flavour. It’s a natural topping for say a pizza, which uses another version of a tomato sauce. A butter chicken is a way more evolved version of the same thing,” adds Kalra. 

From its humble beginnings as food for refugees, the butter chicken has evolved to straddle new ideas. Eat it the way you like it while we wait for the next avatar in the butter chicken’s seven-decade-old journey. 

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