Battle of butter chicken gets spicier as Delhi court verdict on origins draws near

Two restaurant chains are locked in a legal battle over who can claim to have invented the popular dish

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At an upmarket food court near New Delhi’s international airport, people wait eagerly for seats at Daryaganj, a well-known restaurant which boasts of serving the original recipe for butter chicken – a claim contested by a rival restaurant chain in India's capital.

In the redbrick and dimly-lit interior, waiters deliver aromatic servings of the popular dish – pieces of succulent roasted chicken cooked in a thick gravy of tomato, cream and butter – in heavy bronze vessels.

Daryaganj's owners claim that the dish served to its patrons is “by the inventors of butter chicken and dal makhani” – a lentil dish made in a similar buttery gravy.

“I had heard a lot about the original butter chicken and ordered that. It was pretty good and different than what we usually get in Delhi. It has a unique taste and flavour,” Rahul Jha, who came to have lunch with friends, told The National.

Launched in the Indian capital in 2019, Daryaganj has seen increased footfall at its outlets in recent months, after its butter chicken claim was challenged in court by another chain, Moti Mahal Delux.

The owners of the two restaurant chains each claim the dish was invented by their forefathers in Delhi's old quarter in 1947.

The Delhi High Court is expected to deliver a verdict at its next hearing of the dispute on May 29.

Who invented butter chicken?

Moti Mahal Delux says butter chicken was invented by Kundan Lal Gujral after he set up a small restaurant called Moti Mahal with two friends, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Dass, in Delhi.

The three men had worked together at a restaurant in Peshawar, now in Pakistan. They fled to Delhi in 1947 amid the religious violence that gripped the Indian subcontinent following its partition into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India at the end of British colonial rule.

Moti Mahal Delux was set up by Mr Gujral's family after the partners dissolved the original business in 1992, while Daryaganj was started by Raghav Jaggi, grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi, and his friend Amit Bagga.

The dispute erupted over the tagline adopted by Daryaganj.

A grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral, Ashim Gujral, filed a 2,752-page lawsuit challenging the claim in January.

The owners of Daryaganj say the case is “baseless” because both Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi were founders of the original restaurant that introduced butter chicken and dal makhani.

“We have a registered trademark that says we are the inventors of butter chicken and dal makhani. It took us four years to register it, no one opposed it,” Mr Bagga told The National.

“Mr Jaggi and Mr Gujral were equal partners so if there is any right to stories and the taglines, the rights are equally to both the families.”

Daryaganj's owners have submitted a 1949 partnership agreement to the court in their response to the lawsuit.

They have also reportedly furnished a photograph from the 1930s showing Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi in Peshawar, as well Mr Jaggi's business card after relocating to Delhi and a 2017 video of him talking about the origin of butter chicken.

Moti Mahal Delux, which has more than 150 franchises in India and abroad, has also accused Daryaganj of copying the interior design of its outlets.

Its management declined The National’s requests for comment.

Whose butter chicken is better?

Moti Mahal Delux enjoys wider popularity as it is older. It has served late American president Richard Nixon and India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at its primary outlet in Delhi and has overseas outlets in the UAE, Bahrain and the US.

Its version of butter chicken is creamier than the one served by Daryaganj and is priced at 540 rupees ($6.48) in India and Dh38 ($10.34) in the UAE.

The butter chicken at Daryaganj, which has 10 outlets in the national capital and satellite cities and plans to open in Bangkok, is priced at 627 rupees ($7.50). The dish is garnished with whole green chillies and ginger juliennes, whereas Moti Mahal Delux serves its butter chicken with a dash of cream and fresh coriander.

Daryaganj is very specific about the ingredients used, Mr Bagga said. The chickens must be no bigger than 750 grams, the tomatoes of particular variety and the butter home-made.

“Our idea was to bring back the classics, food focused on getting the purest ingredients. We have tried to recreate the exact original recipe which was served in 1947,” he said.

For Mr Bagga, whatever the court decides does not matter as he believes customers return to his restaurants for the quality of food and the experience.

“It really doesn’t matter to our customers whether we are the inventors or not. People will come first time for the story but they will keep coming back only if the product, quality and experience is great.”

Daryaganj customer Mr Jha seems to agree.

“For me, the taste matters and not who invented it because in the end, we are coming here for the food which is about how it tastes and how it feels eating,” he said.

Bharati Sharma, a jewellery designer and a regular patron of Moti Mahal Delux, who also dines at Daryaganj, also said the lawsuit and court verdict was not her concern as a customer.

“I have had butter chicken from Moti Mahal and it is good, and Daryaganj also serves good butter chicken. Who invented the dish should not be a concern for anybody,” she said.

Updated: May 24, 2024, 6:00 PM