Kunal Vijayakar loves India’s unofficial national dish — the flaming-orange butter chicken — and its various versions.
There is a huge possibility that what I am about to disclose could diminish my reputation as a connoisseur and critic of fine food. It’s not my credibility, but the credibility of my palate that is now on the line. So, with great apprehension and nervousness, here is my confession. My favourite food in the world is not pan-seared foie gras or confit de canard. Neither is it a classic French boeuf bourguignon or escargots with butter, garlic, and parsley. Nor is it a delicately favoured soupe à l’oignon or le lobster bisque, or anything even remotely French, classic or Escoffier.
My favourite food is the home-grown, north Indian, flaming-orange butter chicken. This dish makes my face light up, sends my pulse racing, and elevates my mood like an Otis lift. I undergo the same kind of hormonal and psychological changes that you’d see in a normal male when he sees a hot woman. That’s what happens to me when I see butter chicken on a dish. Of course, the actual eating of butter chicken is an emotion that manifests itself in tears rolling down the cheeks and is hard to describe in words. Especially if it is a well-made one.
Butter chicken is that one dish that brings the country together. Every Indian state makes its own version. Yet, I don’t know what is so unifying about a butter chicken or chicken makhanwala, as it is also called. It has no royal or historical credentials or legend like the biryani, nihari or korma. We are not even sure whether it originated in India or somewhere else. Some say it’s a post-Independence creation, made with tandoori chicken stirred in a base of tomato soup, a recipe credited to Kundan Lal Gujral of Moti Mahal Restaurant in Old Delhi. But it is also perilously close in taste to UK’s national dish: chicken tikka masala, which is also a concoction made with tomato soup and masalas and probably created in England. But do I care? No, and neither do millions of Indians and thousands of foreigners who swear by the taste of this dish.
Butter chicken changes from city to city, restaurant to restaurant, and cuisine to cuisine. For example, in Delhi, the dish is pale orange with tons of cream and kasuri methi. The Mumbai Shetty restaurants make it reddish-brown and garnish it with cashews, coriander and paneer. The Mughlai restaurants make it light orange in colour, garnished with boiled egg and butter, and Mumbai’s Chiliya community makes it flaming red with gravy floating in oil, which you must then proceed to wipe up with a semi-crisp naan made of maida, soaked in Amul butter. It’s orgasmic and explosive.
If I had to put my money where my mouth is, and I can speak for Mumbai, my recommendation to eat a hot and buttery chicken makhanwala is in one of these three places: Sher-e-Punjab at Fort, Gaylords at Churchgate, or Sagar Cafe at Nagpada. These are three distinct versions; the Café Sagar version being the oily, spicy, flaming red one.
These were my go-to places for butter chicken. Till one fine evening, when my doorbell rang and a delivery boy dropped off an earthen pot (the kind your grandmother stored curd in) at my doorstep. On it was a label that read Goila Butter Chicken, sent to me by Chef Saransh Goila.
Goila’s butter chicken opened up less than a month ago as a take-away in Andheri and has won my heart. The makhanwala is creamy, smooth, with just the right amount of spice and smokiness. The chunks of tandoori chicken in the silken gravy are succulent and slightly charred. The cream is just right and cuts through the sourness of the tomato wonderfully. And the garnish of what I assume is kasuri methi is the home run.
On the day Goila’s butter chicken reached my house, I was famished. I greedily tore open the packaging and devoured the dish with great relish. And if his take-away outlet were any closer to my home, I’d order it every day, slowly turning into a hedonistic, self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking, lotus-eater. Or shall I say butter chicken eater.
Author and TV show host Vijayakar is “always hungry”. He tweets as @kunalvijayakar