LIFESTYLE

Tracing The Roots Of Arguably Delhi's Most Popular Food -- Butter Chicken

It all began in pre-Partition India.

30/05/2017 10:24 AM IST | Updated 07/06/2017 3:40 PM IST
Andrew Clarance/HuffPost India

The first bite of butter chicken, enjoyed best with a generous portion of the equally popular dal makhani, at Moti Mahal, located in a corner of the posh M-Block market of Greater Kailash, will jolt you with a burst of a combination of flavours. As you try to cram in as much of the delectable fare in spaces you didn't know your tummy had, you realise that you are in company of a restaurant-full of people who have signed up for this food comatose, just like you.

Since the inception of this outlet in 1978, they have been slowly but steadily infusing the aroma and the butteriness into the veins of Delhi. But the road to the hearts of dilliwalas had begun, long before 1978, when Kundan Lal Gujral, who owned a small eatery in the lanes of Peshawar, brought this much-coveted dish to India after partition.

His grandson, Monish Gujral who runs the Moti Mahal chain tells the story of butter chicken's origins to HuffPost India. "The eatery at Peshawar used to serve kebabs, and tandoori chicken made in tandoors that were brought by Central Asians to bake bread. However, there was no system of refrigeration, which meant that the tandoori chicken that was left over from a day could not be served the following day. It would not become bad but it would not be the usual delicious fare. So, they made a sauce, with butter, to preserve it. That eventually became the butter chicken that we know today," says Gujral.

Andrew Clarance/HuffPost India

But anyone would tell you that history is hardly the flavour people look for in butter chicken. It is, as Chefs Sanjeev Kapoor and Saransh Goila explain, a combination of flavours that has been garnering all the fanfare for the dish. "It works like chaat, don't you think? It works in four different ways -- little spicy, little tangy, little sweet and little salty -- touches the palate," says Sanjeev Kapoor to HuffPost India.

"It works like chaat, don't you think? It works in four different ways -- little spicy, little tangy, little sweet and little salty -- touches the palate."

"It is creamy and savoury and is universally accepted by people with different palates. It also has the right proportion of spices, providing an easy flavour," Saransh Goila tells HuffPost India.

Even so, the original taste of the butter chicken, the one that made Kundan Lal's establishment such a raging hit has been preserved only by its GK outlet. The 'original' outlet, the one that Kundan Lal opened when he came to Delhi, is still operating in the middle of the bustling Ansari Road in Daryaganj.

The rights of the outlet were bought by Vinod Chaddha in 1991, who has been running it since then. In an attempt to not piggyback on Moti Mahal's popularity, Chaddha seems to be reiterating one fact over and over -- that the Daryaganj Moti Mahal has no branch. He even mentioned to HuffPost India that he altered the original recipe and made it better.

The original recipe requires the tandoori chicken to be cooked in generous portions of tomatoes, a dash of the choicest spices and huge dollops of pasteurised butter. The tomatoes lend their colour, make the gravy of a creamy consistency, and slightly-tangy. There is also a secret to the preparation that makes the original recipe special and one that Gujral is not quite willing to let out. But the recipe that Chaddha, the Daryaganj outlet owner, claims to have modified, is more buttery with the taste of spices dominating over the tanginess.

Andrew Clarance/HuffPost India

"Moreover, people in North India love their tandoori chicken. So the tandoori chicken and the gravy together makes it so popular."

Although there is no consistency in the flavours of butter chicken across the outlets of Moti Mahal, the brand has carved a name for itself in the annals of food lovers. "It is creamy and savoury and is universally accepted by people with different palates. It also has the right proportion of spices, providing an easy flavour. Moreover, people in North India love their tandoori chicken. So the tandoori chicken and the gravy together makes it so popular. And Moti Mahal did just that and transformed butter chicken into a brand," says Saransh Goila.

Although Moti Mahal's sheen might have come off a bit, with new outlets offering more innovative variations of the buttery dish, they maintain that originality sells. In fact, their originality have brought in guests like Pandit Nehru and more recently Gordon Ramsay, who made butter chicken in the slightly-worn out Daryaganj outlet.

"Once my grandfather migrated to Delhi and introduced his inventions to the dilliwalas, the word of its unique food got around. Former Union Minister Meher Chand Khanna, who was a friend of my grandfather introduced him to Pandit Nehru, who was so impressed by our dishes that it became a must for most official and foreign dignitaries to visit. That's how the love for butter chicken started spreading," says Gujral.

What Gujral indicates is that no matter how many variations are made, when you grow up having something, you can't wave off its taste from your palate. "Like the case with everything original, for instance, the hot chocolate fudge from Nirula's, Moti Mahal's butter chicken has grown on us," says Gujral.

Zohaib Hussain

Is it just memories of good old childhood that makes the butter chicken tick, then?

"I think it is just very easy to eat, with or without bones. Moreover it is a dish that I have found works well with kids and older people alike. It is just a smart dish! While cooking, the chances of going wrong is very less because it is easier to cook tomatoes, even when it is in bulk. You can just put tomatoes on the stove and leave it without monitoring. Another thing that works is its freshness, lent again by the tomatoes. It is just very congenial," Sanjeev Kapoor says.

"We have set a bar."

Reiterating the same, food critic Marryam H Reshii writes in her blog that for a dish to become popular it has to be a perfect mix of 'novelty and familiarity'. That is exactly why butter chicken has been passed down by generations of its first-time tasters to their children and grandchildren. Food critic, Harnoor Channi-Tiwari writes for NDTV Food that the beauty of butter chicken lays in its 'subtle balance' of butter and tomatoes.

But be it the Daryaganj outlet or the GK one, the staff of all ranks in those outlets, like their customers, relish the unique offering of the Moti Mahal dish. They agree unanimously on one thing -- that the dish cooked elsewhere do not do justice to the original recipe. "The taste of the original butter chicken is now in the blood of the people here. We have set a bar," Gujral adds.