Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The battle of the Butter Chickens

Updated on Aug 11, 2019 02:35 PM IST
It is the most famous dish of Indian restaurant cuisine. But now a new war has broken out about its invention.
Does anyone remember what the original butter chicken is like? There are too many variations floating around these days
Does anyone remember what the original butter chicken is like? There are too many variations floating around these days
Hindustan Times | By

All over the world, there are dishes that are associated with individual restaurants. For instance, Carpaccio was created by Harry’s Bar in Venice. Or there are individual chefs who are credited with the invention of dishes and styles of cooking: the French chef Auguste Escoffier created two dishes for the singer Dame Nellie Melba – Melba Toast and Peach Melba – that are still served all over the world.

Because India has no ancient restaurant tradition, it is hard to ascribe similar origins to our dishes. But there is one restaurant and one style of cooking that has been extraordinarily influential. And now, there are some squabbles about its creation.

By now, you probably know the story of Moti Mahal. In the 1930s, there was a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar. Its great claim to fame was that it pioneered the use of tandoors (used till then only for baking bread) for meat cooking. Its greatest invention was Tandoori Chicken, a dish that would later become world famous, but which was then well known only in parts of Peshawar.

Was Butter Chicken as originally invented different from what we get in today’s restaurants?

Like many Hindus from that region, Mokha Singh, the owner of Moti Mahal and many of his staff members crossed over to India after Partition and settled in Delhi. Some of them opened a Delhi version of Moti Mahal (with Mokha Singh’s blessings) in Daryaganj (they shifted to another part of Daryaganj in the 1950s) and introduced Delhi to Tandoori Chicken.

This part of the story is non-controversial. But then it gets more complicated.

The best known of the Moti Mahal partners was Kundan Lal Gujral, a flamboyant, charismatic restaurateur who became the face of Moti Mahal.

Gujral’s role is well-documented. But what did his other two partners do? One of them, Thakur Dass Mago, was the money man. His role in providing and handling the finances is well recorded. The dispute is really over the role of the third partner. Kundan Lal Jaggi. What did he do? And was he really the inventor of Butter Chicken, as his descendants now claim?

Moti Mahal invented Tandoori Chicken, which went on to become world famous
Moti Mahal invented Tandoori Chicken, which went on to become world famous

I started writing about the history of Tandoori Chicken and therefore, about Moti Mahal, nearly two decades ago. It was during my time as the editor of HT that we focused on Moti Mahal’s role in creating the defining dishes of Indian restaurant cuisine in both HT City and Brunch.

By then, Gujral and his partners had sold the original Daryaganj Moti Mahal, and the restaurant was a sad and pathetic shadow of the original. A second chain called Moti Mahal Delux in which the Gujrals had a share (though they did not run it) served a variation of the Moti Mahal menu and the quality was inconsistent (okay at Greater Kailash; terrible at South Extension, etc.)

Gujral’s grandson Monish took the restaurant places
Gujral’s grandson Monish took the restaurant places

At HT, we focused on Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson, who was trying to revive the brand. When we first wrote about him, we had no idea that his success would exceed his own wildest dreams. Using such new brands as Moti Mahal Tandoori Trail, Monish now has 200 outlets all over the world. The Moti Mahal name lives again.

The history of Moti Mahal as we have recorded it, comes mostly from Monish, who has many memories of his grandfather Kundan Lal.

But all this has slightly irked the descendants of one of the senior Gujral’s three partners: Kundan Lal Jaggi. They do not dispute the basic Moti Mahal story and speak admiringly of Kundan Lal Gujral’s role in making it the most influential restaurant in Indian history. 

Moti Mahal now has over 200 outlets across the world
Moti Mahal now has over 200 outlets across the world

But here’s the twist. The Jaggis say that while Gujral was the face of the restaurant and a great host, he was not actually the man in the kitchen. That role, they say, was played by Kundan Lal Jaggi. (It is all made more confusing because both men were called Kundan Lal.)

Kundan Lal Jaggi is said to be the inventor of the dish
Kundan Lal Jaggi is said to be the inventor of the dish

In the Jaggi account, the partners brought Tandoori Chicken from Peshawar but created the rest of the menu in Daryaganj. In fact, they say, the original plan was to open a tea shop, but Jaggi insisted on a full-fledged restaurant.

Fair enough. But did Jaggi have a hand in creating the dishes that made Moti Mahal famous?

Yes, they say. Butter Chicken was entirely his invention. He used to describe it as a dish created ‘by chance’. A large group of Punjabi refugees had come into the restaurant and he did not have enough Tandoori Chicken to feed them. So he cut the chicken into pieces and created the now famous gravy on the spot.

This account is disputed by Gujral’s family. They say that the characterisation of Gujral as the man who looked after the front of the house while Jaggi handled the kitchen is totally inaccurate. In their telling, Gujral was the chief. He created the first Tandoori Chicken in Peshawar, brought it to Delhi and then went on to create the other dishes that made Moti Mahal famous, including Butter Chicken.

The original Butter Chicken was simpler, with chopped tomatoes, cream, butter and spices
The original Butter Chicken was simpler, with chopped tomatoes, cream, butter and spices

According to his grandson Monish, Gujral was so particular about the food that only his wife was allowed to mix the masalas each morning. Gujral would take them to the restaurant and keep them in a box on his desk. He would send masalas into the kitchen as and when they were needed.

As for Jaggi, well, says Monish Gujral, he was certainly one of the partners but he had no role in the kitchen. Monish’s grandfather did everything.

It is almost impossible to adjudicate between these competing claims. Kundan Lal Gujral died some time ago and Jaggi passed away relatively recently. But the rivalry has taken on a new edge because Jaggi’s descendants have opened Daryaganj, their own restaurant. There is a successful branch at Aerocity and another should open in Connaught Place very soon. Clearly, they have an all-India chain in mind.

The Jaggi camp opened Daryaganj, a successful restaurant at Aerocity
The Jaggi camp opened Daryaganj, a successful restaurant at Aerocity

Worse still, from the Gujral point of view, is that they describe themselves on their signage and on their menu as “The Inventors of Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani”, both dishes that Monish says that his grandfather created. And just as Monish used photographs of his grandfather at the original Moti Mahal, the Daryaganj menu is packed with photos of Kundan Lal Jaggi.

One photo that is sure to enrage the Gujrals shows the Moti Mahal team in 1951 with the caption “The Original Team of Kundal Lal Jaggi’s restaurant at Daryaganj.”

Kundal Lal Jaggi’s restaurant?

Just as the Gujrals have photoshopped Jaggi out of their Moti Mahal story, the Jaggis have airbrushed Kundal Lal Gujral out of their version.

The photo at Daryaganj of the team from 1951
The photo at Daryaganj of the team from 1951

For the moment at least, it seems that both origin stories will coexist side by side. Monish says that his mother and he own the rights to the Moti Mahal name. That makes no difference because the Jaggis are not calling their restaurant Moti Mahal. As for the claim to have invented Butter Chicken, I don’t think any court has enough evidence to adjudicate that dispute.

My interest therefore is slightly different: does anyone remember what the original Butter Chicken was like? There are too many variations floating around these days.

Monish’s Butter Chicken origin story varies substantially from the Jaggi version. He says that in that pre-refrigeration era, Kundan Lal Gujral worried about what to do with the leftover tandoori chicken each night. His solution was to create a gravy it could be dunked into, and that is how Butter Chicken was born. He says that the gravy was simpler: chopped tomatoes, cream, butter and spices. The only time sugar was added was when the tomatoes were too sour and the flavours need to be balanced.

The Jaggi camp disputes the leftover chicken version, but their take on the original recipe is roughly the same. Both sides agree that fresh tomatoes were coarsely ground for the gravy. There was no canned tomato puree in those days and they had no blenders or mixies in the kitchen.

The original Butter Chicken had no onion paste. Both sides agree on that, though Monish says that the recipe depended so much on the inconsistent taste of market tomatoes that sometimes, fresh onions were added when the tomatoes were not right.

Kundan Lal Gujral, was the face of Moti Mahal for years
Kundan Lal Gujral, was the face of Moti Mahal for years

Both sides agree that the original dish had very few masalas. Today’s cooks add garam masala (either whole or in powder form), which is not part of the original recipe.

The dish can only be made with chicken that has been cooked in a tandoor. In fact, that was its claim to fame – the first curry to be made with meat/chicken cooked in a tandoor. Today’s chefs used par-boiled or raw chicken, which is wrong.  

There is some disagreement on the cream content. Monish says Butter Chicken always had more cream than butter. The Jaggis say no; there was no pasteurised cream available in those days and butter (sourced from a local dairy) was the primary ingredient. Today, of course, restaurants pour heavy quantities of cream into the butter chicken.

So was Butter Chicken as originally invented (by whoever) very different from what we get in today’s restaurants? I imagine it was.

I tried the Daryaganj version, which claims to be as close to the original as is possible (though they don’t say it is exactly the same as the 1950s version) and it bore little relation to the rubbish that is often served up in restaurants all over India in the name of Butter Chicken.

The Daryaganj dish did not have the lurid colour of modern Butter Chicken. (Even the original Moti Mahal Tandoori Chicken did not have the food colour that chefs now to use to make it look red.) The flavour was simpler and subtler. There was no cream overkill and the texture was completely different because no tomato puree had been used. 

As you can probably tell, I liked it a lot though. I would normally never order a Butter Chicken at most restaurants (I also liked their dal but that is a column in itself.)

So, does it matter who really invented Butter Chicken? I guess it does to the extent that we can say it was Moti Mahal. I don’t think we need to go much deeper than that.

But at least the battle of the Butter Chickens reminds us of how good the original was. And how most restaurants now get it wrong.

From HT Brunch, August 11, 2019

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