Given it was created from leftovers, butter chicken is laudable for the near cult status it has acquired in many a culinary circle. The dish holds pride of place in nearly every Indian restaurant in the world alongside tandoori chicken, from which it evolved. Incidentally, both dishes were the brainchild of one man.
The story begins with the 1947 partition of India, when Kundan Lal Gujral, a Punjabi Hindu, fled from the newly formed Pakistan to India. On reaching the capital city of Delhi, Gujral, along with two partners, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Dass, started a restaurant called Moti Mahal. It soon became famous for tandoori chicken, a recipe Gujral had created and brought with him from Peshawar.
As business grew and patrons poured in, Gujral noticed a lot of food was getting wasted, especially his star dish tandoori chicken, as there were no refrigerators to store leftovers in those days. This led him and his team to experiment, and they created a thick curry made from spiced tomato paste, cream and loads of butter, in which diced chicken pieces were cooked to perfection. Little did Gujral know his experiment would introduce India to its most popular chicken curry of all time.
“All the dishes invented by grandfather were out of necessity, be it butter chicken, dal makhani or tandoori chicken,” chef Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson, tells The National. “Whenever he noticed wastage, he became worried and started experimenting to preserve the dish for the next day.”
While Monish owns the Moti Mahal Delux chain and has set up franchise outlets in major cities around the world, the original Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi was sold by his grandfather to the current owner, Vinod Chadha. “I bought the restaurant from Gujral in a dilapidated condition,” says Chadha. “I just made a few changes, but not to the taste or the recipe of its famous dishes.”
A taste test of the butter chicken, served here on simple steel plates, reveals a light and airy dish that belies the richness of the cream and butter that goes into it.
In only a short span of time, butter chicken acquired celebrity status and was to be found in all Indian restaurants. The reason behind its popularity, reckons chef Hardev Singh Saini, from Crowne Plaza Greater Noida, is the sweet and tangy taste thanks to the addition of fenugreek, which resonates with almost all palates. “Also, its thick gravy can be consumed with anything, chapatti, rice or even by itself,” says Saini.
Sandeep Pande, executive chef, JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity, says the dish is just as popular among non-Indians because it does not have overpowering spices, but a buttery and creamy flavour. Despite these rich ingredients, the dish is not perceived as unhealthy because the chicken is cooked in a traditional wood-fired clay oven, or tandoor.
Whatever the reason, a bevy of global celebrities and political bigwigs, including former US presidents John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and even former Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto, sought the dish out during state visits to India.
As the country’s first education minister Abul Kalam Azad told the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi: “If you have visited Delhi and haven’t tasted the butter chicken of Moti Mahal, it’s like visiting Agra and missing the Taj Mahal.”
Recipe: butter chicken by Monish Gujral
Ingredients for the chicken
680g boneless, skinless chicken (white and/or dark meat), cut into 4cm chunks
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp garam masala
1½ tsp salt
¼ cup plain, full-fat yoghurt
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp finely minced fresh ginger
Ingredients for the sauce
2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
4 medium tomatoes, hulled and chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tsp peeled minced fresh ginger
1 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp salted butter
1/3 cup thick cream
● Preheat the oven to 200ºC. Grease a rimmed baking sheet with cooking oil spray.
● Combine the chicken meat with lime juice, chilli powder, garam masala, salt, yoghurt, garlic and ginger in a mixing bowl, and then spread evenly over the baking sheet.
● Roast on the middle rack for 15 to 18 minutes, until the chicken is just cooked through.
● Meanwhile, heat the oil in a pot over medium heat to make the sauce. Once the oil simmers, add the onion and cook for two to three minutes until softened. Stir in the tomato, cook for 10 to 12 minutes.
● Use a spatula to press the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer back into the pot, or puree with an immersion (stick) blender right in the pot.
● Stir in the garlic, ginger, chilli powder, garam masala and cumin until well blended. Add the chicken pieces, stirring to coat with sauce.
● Cook for three to five minutes, until heated through. Add the butter just before serving. Once the butter has melted, stir in the cream, until it is well mixed in.
● Remove from the stove immediately and serve warm.