Butter Chicken: The Emperor of Salivating Gluttons

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The fascinating journey of Butter can be traced to a tiny eatery in the old city of Delhi. It rose to international acclaim and to being the staple dish of restaurants both in India and the world, from truly humble beginnings. The real story of its origin shows that this yummilicious gastronomic delight was hit upon by sheer accident and was perfected over the years by fluke experimentation with spices. In the 1920s, ran a small dhabha (wayside eatery) in Gora bazaar area of Peshawar city of pre-partition India. His tandoori chicken had acquired much acclaim. During the partition, he moved to Delhi like many other Hindu and Sikh refugees. Kundanlal set up the hugely popular Moti Mahal Restaurant in the Daryaganj area of old Delhi in the post-partition era, around the early 1950s. He brought the seedlings of the original simple butter chicken with him. It went on to take the country’s palates by storm. The dilemma Gujral faced with the left over tandoori chicken led to the invention of a lifetime. Whenever there was chicken from the tandoor it would dry out and be wasted. He had hit on a simple utilitarian method of taking the left over marinade from the chicken and combining it with tomatoes, butter, and some spices. In this gravy, he would dunk the tandoori pieces and cook up the finger-licking dish. Lily traces the origins of popular recipe, in the weekly column, exclusively in Different Truths. 

A dish appears on the culinary horizon and becomes the emperor for salivating gluttons of all ages and tastes. Once your taste buds have made friends with this coral coloured jewel of a dish, you are going to keep coming back and asking for more. Every little Punjabi child grows up hearing his parents ordering it at home or in a restaurant. Takeaway orders for this smashing hit are unprecedented in the North of India. It seems to be a universal favourite for anyone who wants a sample of a true blue Punjabi menu. I speak reverentially of the unbeatable divinity of Butter Chicken. I have known rigid vegetarian friends unable to resist a dip into the curry, you know just to understand what all the hullabaloo is about.

The fascinating journey of this delicacy can be traced to a tiny eatery in the old city of Delhi. It rose to international acclaim and to being the staple dish of Indian restaurants both in India and the world, from truly humble beginnings. The real story of its origin shows that this yummilicious gastronomic delight was hit upon by sheer accident and was perfected over the years by fluke experimentation with spices. Its unique blend of delicious flavours was tossed about over a of time.

The story that I hear being repeated everywhere is that in the 1920’s Kundanlal Gujral ran a small dhabha (wayside eatery) in Gora bazaar area of Peshawar city of pre-partition India. His tandoori chicken had acquired much acclaim. During the partition, he moved to Delhi like many other Hindu and Sikh refugees. They carried with them the folk songs, the sweet dialect and the cuisine, as they reached new locations. There are pockets of these refugees everywhere in the India of today. My ancestors also came the same way. You may draw a line to mark a boundary but what will you do about human hearts that dance to the drums of yore? Well, Kundanlal set up the hugely popular Moti Mahal Restaurant in the Daryaganj area of old Delhi in the post-partition era, around the early 1950s. He brought the seedlings of the original simple butter chicken with him. It went on to take the country’s palates by storm.

The dilemma Gujral faced with the left-over tandoori chicken led to the invention of a lifetime. Whenever there was chicken from the tandoor it would dry out and be wasted. He had hit on a simple utilitarian method of taking the left-over marinade from the chicken and combining it with tomatoes, butter, and some spices. In this gravy, he would dunk the tandoori pieces and cook up the finger-licking dish. This came to Delhi, yes the same Delhi, which had a history of being built and destroyed seven times already. Moti Mahal cooks replicated the simple sauce for Butter Chicken with basic spices, tomatoes, butter and cream. The original also had some cumin in it. Voila, he had a champion on his hands.

Generations changed places and the Butter Chicken evolved. It reached the five star hotels after doing the rounds of Rajendra Nagar and Pandara Road, in New Delhi, much to the delight of the well-heeled. Now, I do need to mention here that each Punjabi household, the world over, has their own personalised versions of this sure shot winner. The gravy as we call the sauce may vary according to individual tastes and many fat fearing folks will gladly turn a blind eye to the cream lacing the sunset shades of this smooch-worthy sauce. So, I might prefer to add Kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) to finish it off. My aunt would cook it in pure white butter made with the cream that came off whole milk from a buffalo. A finicky uncle would add honey to counter the tartness of the tomatoes, while I would manage with a tea spoon or two from my crystal sugar pot! A chef, who is a friend, once told me that the secret of his sumptuous sauce was the use of local or (desi) variety of tomatoes. The hi-bred ones never fit the bill.

The secret to a perfect Butter Chicken could be the fact that it must be made with a bone in chicken cut into eight pieces. Also, the bird must be cooked only three-fourths in the tandoor. Well, the oven and the pan have replaced the clay tandoor! The heat from the wood had a charred flavour all its own. A squeeze of lemon along with the thick yogurt to marinate is also a great idea. Monish Gujral is quoted as saying that he prefers to stick to his grandfather’s original recipe in his restaurant.

I found this recipe from Moti Mahal to share with all my friends worldwide

 

Tandoori chicken: 700gms

Refined oil: 2 tablespoons

Tomatoes: medium, red and ripe, 15 or16

Salt to taste

Deghi mirch: 1tbsp

Cumin powder: 1tbsp

Pasteurized butter: 2tbsp

Fresh cream: Half cup

For garnishing 

Slit chilies 2

Fresh coriander chopped, 1tbsp

Method 

1. Heat oil in a pan.

2. Chop the tomatoes and sieve them through a fine sieve.

3. Once oil is hot, add the tomato residue, all spices and salt.

4. Keep stirring on medium heat till cooked and the oil starts leaving the sides of the pan.

5. In a heavy bottomed frying pan add sauce and the tandoori chicken. Sauté on high flame for a few minutes.

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

7. Stir in the cream and remove in a few seconds

8. Serve hot garnished with green chilies and fresh coriander.

9. Having told you the basic , I simply have to tell you all the recipe that tiger’s taste buds.

Your Butter Chicken is ready to serve. Slap the back of the one serving you and say in chaste Punjabi, “Bai baija baija Karaati! / Chha Gaya boss!!”

©Lily Swarn

Photos from the internet.

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn

Lily Swarn won the Reuel International Prize for Poetry 2016, Global Poet of Peace and Universal Love, Global Icon of Peace from Nigeria, Virtuoso Award and Woman of Substance. A postgraduate in English from Panjab University, she taught at Sacred College, Dalhousie. A gold medallist for Best All-round Student from GCG Chandigarh, she has University Colours for Dramatics. Widely published and interviewed, she authored, A Trellis of Ecstasy and Lilies of the Valley.
Lily Swarn
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