The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Who should we credit for the invented dishes? - Hindustan Times

The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Who should we credit for the invented dishes?

By, Delhi
Jan 23, 2024 02:03 PM IST

This article traces the dishes and the individuals who invented them. Are dishes invented by individuals or do they evolve over time?

Are dishes invented by individuals or do they evolve over time? And even if you do give the credit to an individual, are you denying credit to all those who worked with him or her in the kitchen while the dish was being developed?

The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Who should we credit for the invented dishes?(Pinterest)
The Taste by Vir Sanghvi: Who should we credit for the invented dishes?(Pinterest)

In the West, great chefs are often honoured for their creations. Auguste Escoffier the pioneering French chef created so many dishes that he earned the right to name them. Both Melba toast and peach Melba were created by him for the singer Nellie Melba.

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Other dishes are so closely associated with individual chefs that nobody can make them with acknowledging the originals. For instance, Paul Bocuse invented an iconic black truffle soup in the 1970s that is always credited to him. More recently, the New York pastry chef Dominique Ansel created the cronut, a pastry that was briefly world famous.

In legal terms, however, all this gets much more complicated. You can copyright a recipe. There have been cases in the West where the authors of cookbooks have sued other cookbook writers who have incorporated their recipes into their own books.

Often, recipes can become trade secrets. The exact recipe (or ‘formula’) for Coca Cola remains a closely-guarded secret. Nobody else can make Coke to the exact same recipe — assuming they could get their hands on it — without being sued by the Coca Cola Company.

But, all too often, dishes became so common that their inventors tend to be forgotten. Who invented the potato chip? Legend has it that George Crum, a Native American/Black chef at a restaurant in Saratoga first made potato chips at the Moon’s Lake House. Later Crum’s wife said it had actually been her idea. But the controversy died down because ultimately nobody cared.

That’s roughly our attitude in India. Who created the first masala dosa? Some versions give the credit to the Woodlands restaurant chain. Others dispute this and nobody cares enough to dig deeper.

But occasionally, some disputes become bigger than you would expect. Witness the spat between Bengal and Odisha over the invention of the rasgulla. Then, there is a quarrel in the UK over the first chicken tikka masala. A Pakistani-born restaurateur who died recently was given the credit in his obituaries but Britain is full of Bangladeshi restaurateurs who say that they were the ones who first thought of the dish. (As though this is something to be proud of…)

And there is our own butter chicken battle which is now before the courts. I have written extensively about the battle of the butter chickens before, so forgive me if you have heard it all before. But here’s the background: Tandoori chicken was invented (possibly in the 1930s) at a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar.

Around the time of Partition, the owner of Moti Mahal, Mokha Singh came to Delhi as did many of his old employees. Mokha Singh allowed three of his former employees to use the Moti Mahal name and to serve the same menu as the Peshawar Moti Mahal.

Tandoori chicken was, of course, an instant success but the Delhi restaurant had a breakthrough when it created butter chicken using pieces of cooked tandoori chicken in a tomato gravy. Today, butter chicken is one of India’s best known dishes.

So far, so good. But who invented butter chicken?

For years, the credit has gone to Kundan Lal Gujral, a charismatic figure who was the face of Moti Mahal. The other two partners were Thakur Das Mago who handled finances and Kundan Lal Jaggi. (There are a lot of people called Kundan Lal in this story!)

For years, Jaggi (who died a few years ago) and his family held their peace, allowing Gujral to be the hero of the Moti Mahal story. Not that it was all easy going for the Gujrals after Kundan Lal passed: The original Moti Mahal in Daryaganj was leased out to somebody else. Various Moti Mahal Deluxes that were not run by the Gujral family opened all over India because apparently, they had been licensed to use the name.

Over the last two decades or so, Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson, has taken hold of the legacy and tried to restore the reputation of the Gujrals as the inventors of some of North India’s most popular dishes.

All went smoothly for Monish till Raghav Jaggi, grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi started (with Amit Bagga as partner) a rival chain of restaurants serving many dishes that had their roots in the original Moti Mahal menu. He called his chain Daryaganj after the original location and added the description “By the inventors of butter chicken and dal makhani.”

In March 2018, Daryaganj trademarked the name and the description line. The registration was unopposed, says Bagga.

The owners of Daryaganj claim that while Gujral was the face of the restaurant, Jaggi handled the kitchen and so the post Peshawar menu innovations were all his ideas. Because he was a mild-mannered, retiring man, he was content to let Gujral take the limelight.

As you might expect, Monish Gujral and his family saw red when Daryaganj was launched. They conceded that Jaggi had been there when Moti Mahal was set up but disputed that he had played any major role in the conception of the menu. He was, in their version, very much a junior partner.

In any case, they said, the Gujral family owned the name Moti Mahal so they had the rights to commercially exploit all dishes created at the restaurant.

As for the claim that Jaggi handled the kitchen, Monish Gujral says that in reality all the food was handled by his family and his grandmother used to keep the secret masala combinations.

When I wrote about this dispute in 2019, I noted Monish Gujral’s ire and wondered what would come of his dispute. In fact, nothing happened. Both chains prospered and appeared to have decided to co-exist.

Then, last week, the Gujrals hit the headlines because they went to court demanding that the owners of Daryaganj be restrained from calling themselves the inventors of butter chicken. The court did not grant them an immediate injunction to this effect but has said that it will hear the case.

But how will the court decide who the inventor of butter chicken really was? I asked Shikha Sachdeva, the founder and managing partner of ASM Law Practice, one of Delhi’s leading experts in intellectual property, how such a case could be adjudicated.

She said that while she had not read the briefs and so could not comment on the specifics of this matter, she had never come across a case like this before in the Indian courts. As nobody seemed to be disputing that the dish was created at Moti Mahal, the Court had to decide which of the partners played the larger role in its creation. But, given that everything was credited to the restaurant as a whole and not to individuals, it would be hard to tell, so many decades later, what really went on in the kitchen.

Perhaps, there could be witnesses who were present at the time of butter chicken’s creation but given that this was so long ago, nearly everyone who was present in those days is no longer around. It is possible that one of the partners had a handwritten recipe and the ownership of that recipe could help settle the issue. But so far this has not come to light.

Because this is going to be such a difficult case to adjudicate, lawyers believe, the courts might recommend a compromise.

But what form could such a compromise take? The owners of Daryaganj probably know that even if they deleted their claims about the invention of butter chicken, it would make no difference to their business. And despite the success of Daryaganj, Moti Mahal continues to flourish.

People go to restaurants to eat dishes they like and don’t really care who invented them decades ago.

So, this is more than a commercial dispute. It is the story of two men fighting for their grandfathers’ legacies. And those disputes are often the hardest to settle.

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