Foodies drool over these two dishes with unabashed abandon, making sure they don’t waste a morsel. A visit to a Mughlai restaurant without ordering them is akin to blasphemy. And they are hugely, if not singularly, responsible for lending saddi Dilli its jovial, boisterous image. Yes, we’re talking about butter chicken and tandoori chicken.
This year, these two iconic dishes turned 90. From their birth in a tiny samosa-cum-sherbat shop in Peshawar in 1928, their post-partition introduction to Delhi from a tiny corner in Daryaganj to their present day global renown, they have mapped a long and laudable trail.
It all began when a young Kundan Lal Gujral began helping out at a small shop called Moti Sweets in Peshawar (now in Pakistan). In 1929, at the request by the shop’s owner, he ‘invented’ these dishes. “The owner wasn’t well and told my grandfather to make him a light chicken dish,” explains Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson. “In those days, the tandoor was used only to bake breads. He decided to cook chicken in it, and what came out was tandoori chicken. He put it on the menu and changed the shop’s name to Moti Mahal,” he adds. Soon after came the butter chicken. Instead of letting leftover pieces of tandoori chicken go waste, an inspired Gujral came up with a rich, creamy gravy to dunk them into. The butter chicken or murgh makhani was born.
In 1947, Gujral migrated to Delhi and set up a shop at Daryaganj. The rest, as they say, is history. Its popularity reached such heights that Maulana Azad, then education minister, told the visiting Shah of Iran: ‘Going to Delhi and not eating at Moti Mahal is like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal’! Ask him about the secret ingredient and Gujral says: “my grandfather’s love.”
Today, these venerable dishes have acquired international stature. Among the Capital’s diners, Gulati, Karim’s and Pindi rank among the top places for these dishes. Says Zain-ul-Abedin, co-owner, Karim’s, “Logon ki zabaan par sharaab ke baad butter chicken aur tandoori chicken hi hota hai. It’s become very common. Thirty to forty years back, no one had heard of it.” Food blogger Siddhartha Khullar, who counts Moti Mahal restaurants as his favourite place for butter chicken, says the dishes have played a “very important” role for India’s culinary map. “Everyone I’ve met all over the world knows two things about India — butter chicken and naan.”
Ninety years after their creation, butter chicken and tandoori chicken continue to rule the roost. The evidence? The 90 restaurants under the Moti Mahal brand alone sell 1 lakh portions of butter chicken each year!