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Butter chicken has come a long way from its humble origins

From Peshawar to Delhi, and then to the rest of the world, the Butter Chicken’s journey has only just begun, writes Vir Sanghvi

brunch Updated: Jun 26, 2016 12:41 IST
moti mahal,goila butter chicken,delhi pavilion
To make Delhi Pavilion’s signature butter chicken, chef Vipul Gupta uses desi tomatoes rather than the usual red one

Some weeks ago, I wrote about sushi. It was so popular, I said, that it had become the new butter chicken. To which some readers responded: why, what’s wrong with the old butter chicken?

And sure enough, just as that column appeared, I was invited by Saransh Goila for a food tasting. You probably know Saransh. He’s one of the best and the brightest of a new generation of TV chefs. But his latest ambition has nothing to do with TV. He intends to open a chain of restaurants called Goila Butter Chicken all over India. The first, in Andheri, should be opening around now.

The centrepiece of Saransh’s menu is, as you may have guessed, butter chicken. He serves it in many guises – in a biryani, in a bun, etc – it’s fair to say that if you don’t like butter chicken, you probably won’t go to his restaurant.

Because I like Saransh and did not want to disappoint him, I went to the tasting with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. His butter chicken gravy was outstanding. I asked him where he’d got the recipe from. He said that it was his own adaptation. He had grown up on the original, he explained, and mentioned restaurants in Rajendra Nagar and west Delhi that I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting.

A week later, I went to the Delhi Pavilion, the coffee shop at ITC’s Sheraton New Delhi hotel. (I should amend that. We’re not supposed to call them coffee shops. They are “all-day dining places”.) Though the restaurant serves the standard hamburgers and sandwiches, its central conceit is that it recreates the cuisine of Delhi through the ages. The food is very good indeed. Who else but ITC could recreate the dishes served by the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, etc?

Saransh Goila’s new place offers elaborate versions of the humble butter chicken

But there was one anomaly on the menu. The Delhi Pavilion serves butter chicken, a classic Delhi dish popularised by Moti Mahal in Daryaganj in the 1950s. But because it is associated with Hindu refugees from the Partition era, it does not fit the ‘From the Lodhis to the Mughals’ narrative.

I asked chef Vipul Gupta, who cooks an excellent butter chicken, where his recipe came from. The answer seemed to be that they invented it in the Delhi Pavilion kitchens after sampling the various butter chickens on offer in the rest of Delhi. Because it will become a signature ITC dish, it needs a twist, and Vipul has provided one. He uses desi tomatoes rather than the usual red ones. It is the tomatoes that make the dish so distinct.

It was funny to hear this new generation of chefs talk about butter chicken. Their recipes were complex and elaborate – a far cry from butter chicken’s humble and practical origins.

Read: It seems the chicken was first bred in the Indus Valley

In the 1920s, a man called Kundanlal Gujral, along with his partner, Mukha Singh, ran a dhaba at the back corner of Gora Bazar in Peshawar. They popularised tandoori chicken in their little corner of the world but faced a problem: what to do with the chickens that went unsold?

Gujral had the idea of making a curry, in which the dried-out chickens could be softened and served. He invented the butter chicken sauce using tomatoes, butter and cream. The original recipe called for hardly any spices, just a little cumin, a spoonful of mirch, and salt. The brilliance lay in the skillful combination of tomatoes and dairy fat. (Gujral was to repeat the same combination to create the Dal Makhni that is still served by every north Indian restaurant.)

Even within Moti Mahal, there is no one consistent recipe. Each franchise might make its butter chicken in a different way from the other

Post-Partition, Gujral came to Delhi, set up Moti Mahal and turned tandoori chicken into the most famous Indian dish in the world. His butter chicken went on to become the country’s most popular curry.

I asked Monish Gujral, Kundanlal’s grandson, what he made of the butter chicken boom. I told him that when I tweeted a photo of chef Vipul’s butter chicken, I got a torrent of replies. Everyone had his or her own butter chicken place and insisted that it was the best. Some people even claimed that it was a Hyderabadi dish and you could not get ‘real’ butter chicken outside of Hyderabad.

Gujral is philosophical about the flight of the butter chicken. He accepts that most modern versions use ingredients that go far beyond Kundanlal’s original. Saransh’s version, for instance, uses kasuri methi. Most other restaurants use cashewnut paste to thicken the gravy. (I think everyone who goes to catering college in India spends one whole semester learning how to put kaju paste in everything.) Vipul sweetens the Delhi Pavilion butter chicken with a dash of honey. Less fancy places simply use sugar.

Even within Moti Mahal, there is no one consistent recipe. After Kundanlal died, the original Moti Mahal in Daryaganj passed out of his family’s control. Another chain ran many restaurants under the name of Moti Mahal Deluxe without the involvement of Kundanlal’s family. Monish has reclaimed his ancestral legacy and now operates or franchises over a hundred Moti Mahals all over the world.

For the ordinary tandoori chicken fan, this multiplicity of Moti Mahal chains, all owned by different people, can get confusing. I remember wandering into the original Moti Mahal over a decade ago and being appalled to see a Chinese section on the menu. What’s more confusing is that there is no standardisation of recipes. One Moti Mahal might make its butter chicken in a different way from the other.

Though the ITC’s Delhi Pavilion serves standard hamburgers and sandwiches, it’s central conceit is that it recreates the cuisine of Delhi through the ages

Within his own chain of Moti Mahals, however, Monish has tried to be consistent and sticks to his grandfather’s recipes. He was happy to share it. Saransh took some persuading but eventually agreed. Vipul did not have a choice: the ITC does not give out its recipes.

Read: Why does Indian food not get the respect it deserves?

I’ve reproduced the original recipe, along with Saransh’s to demonstrate how a simple dish acquires new complexities as each generation creates its own version. The original was made with leftover tandoori chicken, but by the time Gujral opened Moti Mahal, he was using tandoori chicken that was only two-thirds cooked. This remains the standard for butter chicken everywhere.

So, if you want to make butter chicken at home, don’t waste your time trying to make it in your kitchen. Buy it from outside and tell them to leave it a little uncooked. The beauty of the dish is the sauce. And as you will see, it’s not that difficult to make. Try these recipes and you will discover that you too can easily concoct your version of India’s most famous curry in the comfort of your own home.

Moti Mahal Butter Chicken


Tandoori Chicken – 700 gms, Refined Oil – 2 tbsp, Tomatoes, medium, red, ripe –15-16, Salt – 3 tsp or to taste, Degi Mirch – 1 tbsp, Cumin Powder – 1 tbsp, Pasteurised Butter – 2 tbsp, Fresh Cream – 1/2 cup (Adjust your seasoning to the sweetness of the tomatoes)

For Garnish Slit Green chilli – 2, chopped green coriander – 1 tbsp

Method :

* Heat oil in a pan.

* Chop the tomatoes and sieve them through a fine sieve in a big container.

* Once oil is hot, add the tomato residue, just enough for one chicken and add all the spices and salt.

* Keep stirring over a medium flame till cooked and oil starts to leave the sides of the pan.

* In a heavy-bottomed frying pan, add the sauce with tandoori chicken and saute on high flame for a few minutes.

* Add in the butter and stir till it is completely dissolved.

* Stir in cream and remove in a few seconds.

* Serve hot, garnished with green chilli and chopped fresh coriander.


Goila Butter Chicken


Tandoori Chicken – 500 gms, Tomato - 1 kg, Onion - 200 + 50 gms, Garlic – 30 + 20 gms, Cashewnut – 50 gms, Kasuri Methi – 2 tbsp, Honey – 2 tsp, Coriander Powder - 2 tsp, Kashmiri Chili Powder – 1 tsp + 1 1/2 tsp, Salt – to taste, Cinnamon – 2 pcs (1 inch each), Green Cardamom – 4 pcs, Cloves - 4 pcs, Butter – 75 gms + 25 gms, Water– 1/2 cup, Milk – 1 cup


* Tie a small bag of muslin cloth with cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.

* In a pressure cooker add chopped tomatoes, onion, garlic, cashewnut, honey, milk, water, coriander powder, 1 tsp kashmiri chilli powder, salt and muslin bag. Pressure-cook for 25 mins. Reduce the flame after the first whistle.

* Open the lid and let it cool. Now grind the gravy to a fine or coarse paste.

* Heat 75 gms of butter and sauté onions and garlic. Once onions are white and garlic light brown add the remaining chilli powder. Now add the gravy to this tadka. Let it simmer for 10–12 mins.

* Dry roast kasuri methi, crush it using your palms and add it to gravy.

* Shred the tandoori chicken and add it to the gravy. Simmer for 2-3 mins. The colour will change to a bright orange.

* Make the second tadka (coal tadka). Burn a piece of coal. Place a steel cup in the center of the gravy. Once the coal is lit, place it in the steel cup. Splash leftover butter on the coal. Once it smokes, immediately place a lid on the pan. Tightly cover it to trap the smoke. After 5 mins discard the coal. Your Goila Butter Chicken is ready.

From HT Brunch, June 26, 2016

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