Food Stories: The Other National Bird

Every day, tens of millions of adherents across the country visit their places of worship to seek comfort and nourishment for their souls and other more earthly things. Among these is another type of institution – the generic North Indian restaurant, where the cult of chicken (of the sect “butter”) is at the top of the deity. Butter chicken and its infinite avatars have evolved, if not into a composite religion, at least into a faith made up of millions.

“I have been friends with this man for over 15 years. Every time we go out on a night out on the town, and I mean every time it ends up with a table loaded with butter chicken and naan,” said Manu Chandra, Executive Chef and partner at Delhi’s Monkey Bar and The Fatty Bao, who is also Chef cook for Olive Beach, Bangalore. He attributes it to a global nutritional profile. “Internationally, you can’t go wrong with a combination of butter, tomatoes and cream, whether you’re in Italy, India or the Isle of Man. So the butter chicken is one such compound that will appeal to taste buds all over the world,” Chandra added.


So what about the butter chicken – the silky chatoyance of its curry, the extremely buttery finish of the dish, the whole experience or all of the above?

“It’s a complete meal in itself. All you need is some form of roti, when it’s great even without it,” says Manish Mehrotra, Corporate Chef at Indian Accent, Delhi. “It tickles the taste buds of every generation, with a flavor combination that will satisfy even aficionados of spices, despite the fact that it is not spicy itself. If the French have mayonnaise and other mother sauces, the makhani gravy has definitely become one of India’s,” he says, listing various derivatives such as Chicken Lababdar, Chicken Tikka Masala (the British Invasion which was essentially boneless butter chicken), or Murgh Makhanwallah Mumbai-style, of course. “Mumbai didn’t have butter chicken for a long time. Then it appeared on menus like Murgh Makhanwallah, with the spices adapted to the sensitivities of that region. Now, just like in Delhi, it’s everywhere,” says Mehrotra.

The Butter Chicken Biryani offered at Social in Delhi

The strongest butter chicken survives and evolves – from the retro roti to new sizes. While Monkey Bar has a Butter Chicken Khichdi complete with achaar, papad, concussed tomatoes et al (khichdi ke paanch yaar), the Delhi Socials are upbeat about their Butter Chicken Biryani. “We wanted to change the butter chicken and bread paradigm, so we decided to play with a rice format. About a hundred tastes later we reached the Butter Chicken Biryani; it has become a favorite,” says Gaurav Gidwani, chef of the eatery.

The genesis of butter chicken (the original, Delhi’s heart beats, hairy or otherwise) is inextricably linked to the evolution of another standby, the tandoori chicken. The latter was raised in Peshawar when young chef restaurateur Kundan Lal Gujral, at the behest of his elderly mentor, strove to create a lighter alternative to the tasty yet feverish kormas and terrifying oily curries that wreaked such havoc on his venerable guts. Gujral came up with the bright idea of ​​skewering marinated chicken pieces and sticking them in the tandoor, previously only used for bread, creating a dish with gravy streaks without the stomach gravitas.

Thus, the tandoori chicken was born and secured the future of the snack-while-drink culture in Northern India. A few decades later, when Gujral set up a new restaurant in Daryaganj after the Partition, Moti Mahal happened, complete with the tandoor that would seal his fortune. The refrigeration facilities or lack thereof at the time prompted Kundan Lal to innovate again to avoid waste, especially that of the tender, temperamental tikkas. He concluded that a tomato gravy, luscious with butter and cream, would serve as a preservative for his fodder and served it as such. The rest was a Punjabi veni, vidi, vici.

The first Moti Mahal was established in Daryaganj in the 1950s.

Since then, the Gujrals have become the first chicken family in the subcontinent. “It’s pretty funny. I meet chefs and restaurateurs who admit to blatantly copying Moti Mahal’s recipes, but still don’t get it exactly. That’s why we never thought of getting the recipe patented. I could do that and the next guy adds two teaspoons of salt instead of one and a half, making it his own. I’m just proud to be a part of the legacy the dish has created and its impact on Indian food culture. Everyone knows Kundan Lal. That’s enough,” says Monish, the grandson of Gujral, who has turned Moti Mahal into an international entity, with 100 outlets around the world, from India to the Middle East to the US. The best-selling item across the continents? Butter chicken, corn oui.

A series in which we record a dish that speaks about a city.

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