Butter chicken ceased to be just food several years ago. For some it's a cliche for North India, and for others, a cultural currency. Apart from being one of the most popular Indian chicken preparations in India, it is one of the better known exports to the West. It is one of the star dishes in Gymkhana, a restaurant voted the best in Britain a few years ago.
Needless to say, like any dish, butter chicken has been embraced across India and the world with tweaks to cater to the palate of the region. However, in Delhi -- arguably the birthplace of the dish -- most old-timers claim to stick to what is considered the 'original' recipe. So, a regular butter chicken in Delhi will be way more sour than say it's counterpart in Kolkata or Mumbai, will have less chilli and will really let the tomato and butter completely dominate the gravy.
It all began in pre-Partition India, in a small eatery in Peshawar.
People used to versions of butter chicken fit to please the local palate in other parts of the country, may find the most orthodox butter chicken slightly hard to embrace -- thanks to the sharp tang from the tomato and the strong whiff of butter in the gravy. However, it's not for nothing that the dish became synonymous with Delhi. And it all began in pre-Partition India, in a small eatery in Peshawar. Kundan Lal Gujral was the man who invented the dish.
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.
But Delhi couldn't have held on to the dish because of the fascinating history associated with it, right? Then what worked in favour of butter chicken? "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, who runs Goila Butter Chicken, tells HuffPost India.
Gujral claims that the 'original' taste of butter chicken has been preserved only in the outlet that he opened in 1978 in south Delhi's Great Kailash I. The first outlet that the Gujrals had opened after the partition no longer belongs to them, but still exists and operates out 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. Chaddha repeatedly told HuffPost India that he never tried to piggyback on Gujral's Moti Mahal's popularity. He insisted that he didn't adhere to the original recipe and has in fact tried to make it better. Daryaganj Moti Mahal's butter chicken is a creamy gravy, overtly tangy and some may even find it flat.
Gujral tells us that the original recipe requires chicken to be charred on a tandoor first. Then, the tandoori chicken needs to be cooked in generous portions of tomatoes and butter. The tomatoes lend their colour, make the gravy of a creamy consistency, and slightly-tangy. Gujral claims that there is a 'secret' that makes the original recipe a hit, one that he isn't willing to part with.
Over the years, several shops calling themselves 'Moti Mahal' sprouted across Delhi. However, any seasoned Delhi foodie will tell you, there's no consistent taste or flavour that is unique to them. And Moti Mahal isn't also the only place Delhi throngs for its fill of Butter Chicken.
"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 Goila, explaining how the dish ascended the ranks of culinary supremacy.
"Pandit Nehru was so impressed by our dishes that it became a must for most official and foreign dignitaries to visit."
"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.
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," Kapoor says.
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.
It probably then makes sense that The New York Times calls Butter Chicken 'the General Tso's of Indian food, a great, ever-evolving, cross-continental dish found in Delhi, London, New York, Perth and most points in between."