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Who cooked up butter chicken? A court seeks the answer. Plus: Madhur Jaffrey's recipe

Butter chicken as served at the Moti Mahal restaurant in New Delhi in January 2024. The dish is the subject of a lawsuit over who has bragging rights as the originator.
Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images
Butter chicken as served at the Moti Mahal restaurant in New Delhi in January 2024. The dish is the subject of a lawsuit over who has bragging rights as the originator.

NEW DELHI, India – India's butter chicken lives among that rarefied pantheon of dishes that is well-loved at home and well-traveled: a smoky, cooked chicken smothered in a bright sauce of tomato, cream, butter and spices. It's been eaten by truck drivers at road-side stalls in rural India and by international glamourati like Jackie Kennedy.

Now butter chicken is at the center of a lawsuit over a burning question: Who gets to say they concocted this dish? The fight is between the grandsons of the two men who founded Moti Mahal, the restaurant where butter chicken was likely first served in India. "The suit has been filed to protect my family legacy," says Monish Gujral, the grandson of one of the founders. He wants the other grandson to stop claiming that his grandfather invented the dish. It's a weighty suit, with the family filing a 2,752-page long document to back their claims.

So where did this dish come from? Let's go back in time.

'Creamy, melty and delicious'

The two men who founded Moti Mahal shared a great deal, starting from the same first name: One was Kundan Lal Jaggi, the other, Kundan Lal Gujral. They were both cooks from the same hometown: Peshawar, in what is now northwest Pakistan.

The two men left Peshawar during the cataclysmic 1947 event known as Partition, when departing British rulers cleaved South Asia into a Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. Millions poured in both directions across that newly drawn border, Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India, all fleeing communal violence.

After Jaggi and Gujral arrived in New Delhi, they started up a restaurant called Moti Mahal, Hindi for "Pearl Palace," serving dishes in a style new to locals. One of the big draws: butter chicken.

The patrons included the celebrated chef and actress Madhur Jaffrey, who ate there as a young teen. "We loved it because it was like nothing we had before," she says. That sauce – Jaffrey says she'd tasted nothing like it before: "Creamy, melty and delicious. You'd break your naan, you'd break a piece of this butter chicken, and then you'd bite into a piece of that pickled onion. It was really heaven." (Her recipe for butter chicken is at the end of this post.)

She says the place grew in popularity and expanded. It became fashionable to order their food to take on picnics.

The restaurant, it seems, was boosted by some serious star power: "Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the first prime minister of India," says Amit Bagga, who founded an Indian butter chicken franchise, Daryaganj, with Jaggi's grandson, and is familiar with Moti Mahal's origin story.

Bagga says Nehru sometimes invited state guests to the restaurant, from "Richard Nixon to Jacqueline Kennedy – top people used to come there," he says. "All of them used to try the same food: Butter chicken, tandoori chicken."

/ Diaa Hadid/NPR
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Diaa Hadid/NPR

The two founders, Gujral and Jaggi, sold the restaurant in the '90s. They never wrote down the recipe for butter chicken. Soon after, the Gujral family created their own spin-off franchise.

Outside one of their outlets in New Delhi on a recent day, a sign claimed Gujral invented butter chicken. Inside, the butter chicken is as heavy as the red-velvet decor – the way many here like it.

A mirror image claim is made byDaryaganj, the rival butter chicken franchise that was founded in 2019. It's there, on a sign outside one of the Daryaganj outlets, which boasts that Jaggi invented butter chicken. The motto underneath the restaurant name includes: "By The Inventors Of Butter Chicken."

This only became a fight after Jaggi's grandson repeated that claim in July last year on Indian Shark Tank, where he pitched an expansion of the Daryaganj franchise to wealthy investors. He said his grandfather whipped up a sauce of butter and tomato to stretch out some tandoori chicken to serve a flurry of guests who came into the restaurant one night.

A few months later in January, the Gujrals filed a lawsuit. There was a hearing on January 16, and local media reports another hearing is expected on March 18.

The next hearing is on May 29.

One version of the origin story

Monish Gujral says his grandfather invented butter chicken while experimenting with ways to freshen up unsold tandoori chicken, which could quickly dry out. "So he wanted to put it in a gravy so it could be served later."

He says his grandfather Kundan Lal Gujral created the dish way before he ever came to India. He says he created butter chicken before Partition, in a restaurant he ran in what is now the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar in 1920.

The restaurant was also called Moti Mahal.

Some Peshawar residents still remember where the restaurant once was. Iqbal Arif points to the building where it once operated.

"Elders from nearby villages still come to this place and say: This was the Moti Mahal, owned by Kundan Lal, they talk about the butter chicken, saying they used to eat it here."

Arif says he met Kundan Lal once, in the '80s when he came to Peshawar for a visit. Arif says Kundan Lal sobbed when he saw his old restaurant and hugged a surviving wild fig tree nearby. "It was the only tree that survived on this road, the rest were chopped down by people," Arif recalls.

Peshawar residents identified the inventor of butter chicken as Kundan Lal — the first name of both of the cooks. But only one Kundan Lal returned to Pakistan to visit the old restaurant: Gujral, whose grandson says he invented butter chicken in Peshawar.

The problem is, residents largely identified the inventor of butter chicken as Kundan Lal – the first name of both the cooks.

That doesn't quite settle who invented the dish, though, because there's another twist: According to the warring butter chicken franchises, Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi had earlier worked for another man in Peshawar. His name was Mukhi Singh.

Some residents identified the man who made butter chicken in Peshawar as Kundan Lal Singh – a mishmash of the names.

But maybe it was a dish made for Brits?!

If we couldn't solve the mystery of who invented butter chicken, I wanted to find out why it was invented. There was something about this story that didn't sit right, because I used to live in Pakistan — and Peshawar is famous for juicy grilled meat, not creamy sauces.

Butter chicken isn't even a thing in Pakistan. "It is not enjoyed so widely in what is Pakistan today," saysNilofer Afridi Qazi, who documents Pakistani food traditions.

She says butter chicken could have been invented in Peshawar before Partition, when it was a northwest border town of the British Empire. The British kept a large garrison there. The restaurant Moti Mahal was located in that garrison, in an area called the Gora Bazaar. So that iconic Indian dish, butter chicken, could have been created to play to British tastes.

"It is essentially a non-Indian dish," says Pant, the Indian food writer. "Satin-smooth, butter-laden gravy, boneless chicken," he says. "This is the lowest common denominator for a non-Indian palate."

Mohammad Taqi, a Pakistani-American writer who grew up around the old British garrison area of Peshawar, says the ingredients point to foreign influences – like copious amounts of fresh butter, rather than ghee, or clarified butter, which is more typically used in South Asia. In Peshawar, he says, the only people who produced butter on scale were the British, in the garrison itself, "to support the troops."

The other ingredient that suggests butter chicken was created with the British in mind is the chicken itself. For Peshawar residents, Taqi says, "chicken was cooked on special occasions and it would usually be a curry. On the other hand, it was pretty much a staple for the British," he says. "So Gora Bazaar – if they were running a restaurant there – then yes, it was catering to the cantonment," Taqi says, referring to the British garrison.

And then there's chicken tikka masala

And then there's butter chicken's near mirror-image resemblance to one of Britain's national dishes: Chicken tikka masala, basically a hot-roasted bird in a tomato-butter sauce.

The origins of that dish are hotly debated. Legend has it that one night in the '70s, a Pakistani-Scottish man, Ali Ahmed Aslam, made a sauce out of a can of tomato soup and cream and poured it over a tandoori chicken, or chicken tikka, after a customer in his Glasgcow restaurant complained it was too dry.

"It's exactly the same story, and it's invented for picky British people who don't want to eat dry chicken," says Lizzie Collingham, author of Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, a history of how the British influenced food in India, and how they were influenced by it. (Collingham tells NPR that the theory that butter chicken was made for British tastes is plausible, but she can't rule on it either way.)

But if the dish was forged in Peshawar, it didn't leave a trace. Perhaps butter chicken didn't have enough time to seep into the city's food culture. Perhaps it's because of partition – when Hindus and Sikhs emptied out of Peshawar, they took their food traditions with them.

Or perhaps the dish was simply the creation of a hurried cook faced with a flurry of guests and a tandoori chicken he needed to stretch out.

Madhur Jaffrey says she suspects the dish originated in India – because it wasn't served when Moti Mahal first opened. She recalls the butter chicken was only served once the restaurant expanded. "If my memory serves me right, we did not have it in the beginning.," she says. But she agrees: Butter chicken did not taste like any Indian dish she knew. "We had many spicy sauces and we loved them. We absolutely loved them. But they weren't mellow and this was mellow," she says. "It didn't have an Indian taste that I knew," she says. "And that's why we loved it."

Everything's coming up butter chicken

Regardless of where, or who invented butter chicken, what it has become in India, is spectacular.

The dish can function like a saucy wink, like in the song, "Butter Chicken," from the 1999 Bollywood movie, The Vow of Love. "Your mouth will water," croons Jaspinder Narula in Bengali. "When you feast on me with your eyes and I'm presented before you, you'll know: I'm Butter Chicken."

It's shorthand for a culinary hug. "It's mother's love. It's a comfort food," says Ishan, a 35-year-old man who was tucking into a plate of butter chicken at an upmarket restaurant in New Delhi on a recent evening.

And food historian and writerPushpesh Pant argues, it's "the gateway to a non-vegetarian paradise." He says it's often the first meaty dish eaten by Hindus who were raised vegetarian, because the chicken is "invisible." he says. The dish is tangy, smokey, tandoori-roasted chicken doused in buttery tomato sauce, and more recently, cream, scooped with crusty naan bread.

Outside of India, the dish is the star of takeout. And it has experienced the greatest of culinary compliments: it has been endlessly altered – or mangled – to local tastes. There's butter chicken pizza, butter chicken pasta, butter chicken tacos and vegan butter chicken. And on and on.

Pant, the Indian food historian says the history of butter chicken will always be elusive.

"Who invented the butter chicken? None of them did," says Pant, the Indian food historian. "It's like asking: Who discovered fire?" he snorts. "Butter chicken was probably made at several places at the same time where the roadside eateries had the same problem: a little leftover chicken which would not sell."

With additional reporting by Arshad Mohmand in Peshawar.


Madhur Jaffrey's recipe for chicken with tomato sauce and butter

From An Invitation to Indian Cooking: 50th Anniversary Edition by Madhur Jaffrey © 1973, 2023 by Madhur Jaffrey. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

The original version of this dish is to be had at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Delhi. There, the Tandoori Chicken is cut into small serving sections and put into a rich sauce of creamed tomatoes, butter and spices.

My very inventive sister, Kamal, has worked out her own version, slightly different, but equally good. The Indian chicken being as tough as it is, what she does is to combine all ingredients — tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, butter, whole spices and chicken sections — in a covered pot and cook them "until the chicken is three-quarters done. By this time the meat has absorbed all the necessary flavors. Then she lifts off the cover and over a high flame stirs and fries the chicken and sauce until almost all the water evaporates and the chicken and paste-like sauce are a dark reddish brown.

This is very hard to do in America, because, as I mentioned earlier, the chicken is very tender and cooks too fast to allow all the flavors to be absorbed and the final frying to be accomplished without disintegration. So I have worked out a third version! Here it is. Serves 6.

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken legs
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 2 medium-sized onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 5 cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • A piece of fresh ginger, about 2 inches long and 1 inch wide, peeled and coarsely chopped
  • 1 stick of cinnamon, 2½– 3 inches, broken up
  • Seeds from 6 whole cardamom pods
  • 8 whole cloves
  • 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
  • 2 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1 hot dried red pepper (or more, as and if desired), crumbled
  • 6 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 16 ounces (2 cups) canned tomato sauce
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 tablespoons lightly salted butter


Preparation

Remove skin from all chicken pieces. Divide legs into drumstick and thigh, and quarter the breasts. Pat dry and put aside.

In the container of an electric blender, combine the onions, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom seeds, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, red pepper and 3 tablespoons water. Blend until you have a smooth paste.

Heat the oil in a 10 to 12-inch casserole-type pot over a high flame. When hot, put in the chicken pieces, 4 or 5 at a time, and brown them quickly (about a minute on each side). Remove with a slotted spoon. You will need to brown the chicken in several batches.

Turn heat to medium and pour in the paste from the blender.(Keep face averted.) Stir and fry the paste for 5 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot well as you do so. Now add the tomato sauce, ¾ cup water and the salt. Bring to a boil. Cover. Turn heat to very low and simmer gently for 30 minutes, stirring every 6 or 7 minutes.

Add the chicken pieces to the pot as well as any juices that may have collected. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer over low heat for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir gently every 5 or 6 minutes to avoid sticking and burning. Be careful not to break the chicken pieces as you stir. (This much of the recipe can be made up to a day in advance and refrigerated.)

Cut the butter into 4 pats. Take the chicken off the heat. Drop in the pats of butter and stir them in gently. Serve immediately.

To serve: Place contents of pot in a warm dish and serve with rice with frozen black-eyed peas or naan. For vegetables, you could have eggplant bharta or fresh peas with ginger and cilantro. You could, if you like, also serve onions pickled in vinegar as they do at the Moti Mahal Restaurant in Delhi.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Diaa Hadid
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
Omkar Khandekar