Butter chicken – two simple words to describe one of the richest of Indian dishes. Succulent chicken pieces wrapped in an utterly butterly combination of cream, tomatoes and aromatic spices, this composite dish is a culinary star that tickles palates across the world. Known as murgh makhani in Hindi, it is also one of the most popular Indian dishes recreated around the world. While this iconic dish remains a much-loved favourite on menus across the country, few Indians know about the humble and practical origins of the butter chicken.
So how and where was the decadent delight called butter chicken first created?
The genesis of the original butter chicken is inextricably tied to the evolution of another gastronomical hero, the tandoori chicken. The origins of the latter lie in Gora Bazaar in Peshawar, where nearly 100 years ago, a man named Mokha Singh Lamba started a small restaurant. The restaurant’s young chef Kundan Lal Gujral decided to experiment by skewering yoghurt marinated pieces of chicken and sticking them into the tandoor (which was previously used only for breads). Thus, the incredibly popular, ubiquitous tandoori chicken was born.
Cooked in the radiant heat of the clay tandoor, fragrant and flavoured by the smoke rising from the hot coals, the version Gujral made—with crispy skin and a recognizably bright red exterior—became an enormous success until he was forced to flee Pakistan during the 1947 Partition of India.
In his new home in Delhi, Gujral founded a new restaurant, Moti Mahal, in Daryaganj. The refrigeration facilities or lack of thereof at that time led to Gujral having to innovate again to avoid wastage, especially that of the unsold tandoori tikkas. He deduced that a tomato gravy, lush in butter and cream, would soften his leftover chicken and served it as such. The combination proved to be a masterstroke and thus, by accident or an act of genius, the butter chicken was born.
The trick behind this mildly spiced recipe lay in getting the temperamental combination of tangy tomatoes and rich dairy textures right. And Gujral had got it just right, creating a dish destined for gastronomic glory. Interestingly, buoyed by the fantastic response he got for this dish, Gujral went on create the dal makhni, another gem of a dish that follows similar culinary principles.
In its 1950s heyday, Gujral’s Moti Mahal was extremely popular with celebrities and world leaders, including Zakir Hussain, Jawahar Lal Nehru, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. Freedom fighter and independent India’s first education minister, Maulana Azad reportedly even told the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that while in India he must make two visits – to the Taj Mahal in Agra and the Moti Mahal in Delhi. And the Shah followed his advice, adding his name to some of the most renowned patrons of Moti Mahal.
In its more recent times, Moti Mahal was visited by none other than renowned master chef Gordon Ramsay, who even went behind the counter in the kitchen of this really old restaurant.
Over time, the butter chicken’s immense popularity saw many other restaurants coming up with their own versions of this cult classic. This led to evolution of various derivatives such as Chicken Lababdar, Chicken Tikka Masala and the Mumbai-style Murgh Makhanwallah that has spices tempered to that region’s sensibilities.
The chicken lababdar is a fusion of the traditional makhni gravy and the textured onion masala used in Mughlai dishes. Ingredients like cashew nuts, poppy seeds, almonds or char magaz (a combination of four seeds/nuts: almonds, pumpkin seeds, cantaloupe Seeds and watermelon seeds) are also used to lend a creamier, richer taste to this dish.
A gravy dish containing tikka chunks, cream, a blend of spices and tomatoes, chicken tikka masala is another version that is essentially butter chicken sans bones; tikka (refers to boneless chicken that is marinated in spiced yoghurt, cut into small pieces and baked in a tandoor) is literally means ‘bits and pieces’!
In 2001, perhaps a little bizarrely, chicken tikka masala was named a ‘British national dish’ by the Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. This led to a fierce debate on the origin of this popular dish. According to one theory, it was supposedly invented by the first Mughal emperor, Babur, who is rumored to have been so afraid of choking on chicken bones that he ordered his chefs to remove them. Zaeemuddin Ahmad, chef at the Karim Hotel in Delhi, on the other hand, claims that the recipe for tikka masala has been passed down through generations of his family and originated during the reign of Bahadur Shah II (1837-1857).
Yet another oft-quoted tale about the chicken tikka masala goes this way:
In the early 1970s, a British man ordered chicken tikka at Sheesh Mahal, an Indian restaurant in Glasgow. When it arrived, he complained that it was too dry and that he would like some sauce with it. Ali Ahmed Aslam, the proprietor of the restaurant claims that tossed a tin of canned tomato soup onto the tikka, added some yoghurt and sprinkled in some spices to appease the gentleman and thus Britain’s much loved dish was born.
However, while chicken tikka masala’s transnational history still remains unclear, there is no doubt that this delicious dish continues to be one of India’s most popular, internationally-loved delicacies.
The butter chicken and its many equally-delightful versions are the perfect examples of the fact that the best things in life are often discovered by accident. But don’t take our word for it – here are the recipes of butter chicken (the Moti Mahal version), chicken tikka masala, chicken lababdar and murgh makhanwallah to help you make them at home. After all, tasting is believing!