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Chicken butter cream - the real deal?

"Who invented the butter chicken? None of them did.  It's like asking: Who discovered fire? 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." Goats and Soda/NPR

The photograph above already has a question mark over it because it's chicken butter cream as served at Moti Mahal Delux in Delhi - the restaurant owned by the grandson of the purported originator of the dish. So it must be the real deal. Well maybe, maybe not.


Last night I made an 'authentic' chicken butter cream in my exploration of cooking different versions of it. So far I have cooked the version on the label of Patak's jar of Chicken butter cream paste, Madhur Jaffrey's and also Nik Sharma's. They were all pretty good, although none quite what I hoped for, with Nik Sharma the winner before yesterday. Almost the real deal that one, though not claiming to be 'authentic'


Anyway I thought it was time to track down the original recipe for my next effort - which I did - and I will come back to that shortly. I will say, however, that it was indeed the best so far. In fact it was really, really good, although of course my effort doesn't actually look that great. Indeed it doesn't look as red as it actually did either which is either due to the lighting or the iPhone camera, or my photo taking skills.


First, however I shall talk about origins and court cases, which I may well have done in the past, so forgive me if I have. I guess if nothing else it demonstrates how passionate people get about recipes, ownership and authenticity.


There actually doesn't seem to be an awful lot of dispute about who is responsible for its fame around the world, indeed it is so famous that Taste Atlas gave it the top spot in their top 100 chicken dishes in the world. However, there are minor disputes about which of two cousins was, responsible and also why they 'invented' it anyway. Not to mention whether, in fact they did invent it at all. Here they are - on the left Kundan Lal Gujral and on the right Kundan Lal Jaggi. In fact you can barely tell them apart.



These two men hailed from the town of Peshawar which is now in Pakistan, but in 1947 - the time of the notorious partition of India into India and Pakistan, the two men moved to Delhi. They had been running a restaurant in Peshawar and there Gujral is said to have invented the dish to use up leftover tandoori chicken which would otherwise have gone to waste - there being no refrigeration at the time. Or perhaps it was a spur of the moment decision to make some tandoori chicken which was too dry, more acceptable. The sauce chosen was a tomato sauce - Makhani, but to which was added butter - lots - and cream.


In recent years a dispute has come about between the descendants of these two men with the people who now run a franchise, which stretches around the world, called Moti Mahal Delux, and the owners of another Delhi restaurant called Daryaganj which is the district in which the original Moti Mahal restaurant was located - and it is actually still there. The owners of the Moti Mahal Delux franchise claim the inventor was Gujral, who was the front of the house person and the owners of Daryaganj claim it was Jaggi who was the chef:


"Raghav Jaggi narrates that his grandfather only had a few pieces of tandoori chicken left and he quickly whipped up a gravy in order to produce a more hearty meal." Aljazeera


Below - the two opposing dishes.



Just to complicate things even further. The original owners of Moti Mohal actually sold the restaurant back in the 90s to Vinod Chadha, who, of course has his own version, but I don't know whether he claims it to be the original version. Nevertheless on the restaurant's website it certainly claims ownership of the recipe. I also found a review on Trip Advisor which was very derogatory but then there's always someone.

It is also worth noting that:


"The two founders, Gujral and Jaggi, sold the restaurant in the '90s. They never wrote down the recipe for butter chicken." Goats and Soda/NPR


The article in Goats and Soda was pretty interesting, particularly in relation to yet another theory about origins - that it is in fact a product of the Indian Raj. Why?


"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" Nilofer Afridi Qazi/Goats and Soda/NPR


The idea here is that some Indian cooks invented it to mollify the British who were stationed at the garrison in Peshawar.


"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." Goats and Soda/NPR


But then again Kundan Lal Gujral is still not quite out of the picture because he did in fact have a restaurant of the same name in Peshawar before Partition. and his descendant Monish Gujral tells us that:


"One day, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, he was asked to invent a dish that was a little lighter than the traditional, heavy regional specialties that were normally served at parties and other functions and celebrations.


His stroke of genius was this: How about using the tandoor? The cylindrical oven was common in the region, but it was normally used only for breads. “He marinated the chicken in yogurt, lime and spices and baked it in the tandoor. What came out was different than what anyone had ever tasted,”


Which actually says nothing about the sauce, which is surely the crucial element of the whole dish.


And one last comment I found, which caught my eye because I had indeed seen one recipe that included coconut milk:


"some even go to the extent of using coconut milk which is a joke (Because coconuts for the uninitiated have no history in Punjabi Cuisine as it is demographically a coastal Indian produce.)" Varun Inamdar


Obviously it's all very open to interpretation which has led to the current rivalry and court case. Still ongoing I guess. It was reopened this May. Reputations are at stake here I suppose, but it is all rather sad that it should come to this.


Enough of the history - on to my search for the 'authentic' recipe. Well I checked out several and in the end decided to follow the recipe which is on the blog called Food and Travel Through a Bangalore Lens and a recipe claiming to be the real deal which they call Moti Mahal's Murgh Makhani. I strayed from it a bit though, in the method, in that I added the spices and the juices from the grilled chicken to the tomato sauce, earlier than this recipe decreed. By then, however, I had decided that actually there were so many recipes out there, with virtually the same list of ingredients - and method that it must at least be a commonly accepted notion of what is right.


The common factors? Marinade the chicken - twice - once with just lime juice, Kashmiri chilli powder and salt, for just half an hour, and then with the addition of the other marinade ingredients, which always seemed to include, yoghurt, ginger, garlic, garam masala, oil and kasoori methi. A touch of cumin was another common ingredient.


Kasoori Methi - what's that? Well it's dried fenugreek leaves and unless you have an Indian supermarket near you I doubt that you will find it. I looked for appropriate substitutes, but I suspect that the only real option, as one writer said, is 'to skip it' So I did.


Then you make the sauce, which also had a very similar list of ingredients - plus tomatoes of course. I used a tin, but my recipe said fresh, although somewhere I saw that fresh is not right. When it's cooked you purée it before adding your tandoori chicken. But it's the butter - lots - and the cream that makes it


As I said, I did stray a bit from the FTB recipe - and I kept this recipe from Boy. Eats World as my comparison.


You can also find other close comparisons in this list: World butter chicken/Cooks Without Borders; Chef Varun Imdar; Moti Mahal.



Such a pity that people fight over these things. Does it really matter? Does it really translate to bums on seats in your restaurant as opposed to somebody else's? Personally I'm going for the Anglo Indian interpretation, which was then cleverly taken up and publicised by the two Kundan Lals. I didn't mention that there's even another Kundan Lal, but that's too much to even think about.


This is the version that my sons - the older one in particular fell in love with, from the Haveli restaurant - then in Doncaster East, now in Nunawading as Haveli Heritage. Maybe I should ask them for their recipe - although I suspect it will be much the same as the one I chose. Besides I don't have a tandoori oven. And they do it with boneless chicken chunks - I cut up half an actual chicken - bones and all.


Chicken butter cream: "It's shorthand for a culinary hug"


World Chicken Butter Cream Day is October 20th. I should write it in my diary and have a family feast.

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