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A chicken recipe so good its origin is being fought in court

By?Tamara Hinson,?
Getty Images Butter chicken served in a bowl (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
Butter chicken is one of the most popular curries around the world (Credit: Getty Images)

A dish beloved around the world, butter chicken is now at the heart of a legal battle being waged by two of India's oldest restaurants.

It was a hot, sticky day in Delhi, and at Gulati, an Indian restaurant just around the corner from the beautiful Agrasen ki Baoli?stepwell, waiters were struggling to cope with a sudden influx of customers, most of whom were here for one thing: the restaurant's legendary butter chicken.

Shortly after I arrived, a trio of off-duty chefs, still in their chefs' whites, grabbed a table and ordered plates of butter chicken, the same dish being enjoyed by a nearby gaggle of office workers and some German tourists who had immediately requested Gulati's most famous dish without even glancing at the menu.

Ironically, for a delicacy most commonly served in restaurants and at celebrations (it's one of the most popular menu items at Indian weddings), butter chicken has strong ties to an event that tore India apart – and it's now at the heart of a legal battle being waged by two of India's oldest restaurants.

A quick history lesson. Prior to India's brutal partition in 1947, a man named Mokha Singh ran a restaurant in the city of Peshawar (now in Pakistan) called Moti Mahal. After partition, Singh moved to Delhi, founding a restaurant with three employees he'd worked with in Peshawar: Kundan Lal Gujral, Kundan Lal Gujral's cousin Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Das Mago. It was here, in a restaurant in the Delhi suburb of Daryaganj, that they started serving a dish first thrown together at their restaurant in Peshawar – one created by adding a tomato-based gravy, dollops of butter and spices common in Pakistan to leftover tandoori chicken.

Butter chicken was an instant hit in Delhi. Government ministers and heads of state (including India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru) flocked to the restaurant to sample the dish, which was regularly served at state banquets. But after Gujral died, financial difficulties prompted the sale of Moti Mahal. However, his descendants, keen to capitalise on their belief that it was their grandfather – and their grandfather alone – who invented butter chicken, later opened another restaurant, Moti Mahal Delux, franchises of which can now be found throughout Delhi.?

Getty Images The dish was created by adding a tomato-based gravy, butter and spices to leftover tandoori chicken (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
The dish was created by adding a tomato-based gravy, butter and spices to leftover tandoori chicken (Credit: Getty Images)

But Gujral's descendants weren't the only ones who wanted to capitalise on the dish that put their ancestors' restaurant on the map. In 2019, Jaggi's grandson founded a rival chain of restaurants called Daryaganj. To add insult to injury, its tagline included the words "by the inventors of Butter Chicken". In early 2024, Moti Mahal Delux and Gujral's grandson, Monish, filed a lawsuit against Daryaganj, asserting that this claim was incorrect and requesting damages on account of the view that Monish's late grandfather was the dish's sole creator. The case will be heard in Delhi on 29 May 2024.

Amit Bagga is CEO of Daryaganj, which he runs with Raghav?Jaggi, the grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi. Bagga firmly believes their restaurant has a right to the tagline, proof of which, he says, is the registered trademark certificate granted in 2018 that allows them to use the full tagline "Daryaganj: by the Inventors of Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani". Additionally, he says, deeds prove that Gujral and Jaggi co-owned the restaurant where it was invented.

Whose grandfather prepared that first portion of butter chicken is almost certainly impossible to prove, although Bagga believes it was probably a collaboration. "They had all this tandoori chicken and they didn't know what to do with it," he said. "So they said, let's make a meal out of it. And they took fresh tomatoes, added butter and spices, mixed it with the chicken and started serving this new dish. I met Kundan Lal Jaggi just before he passed away and I asked him how it was invented, and he said it was an accident – it was created by chance."

And it's certainly a dish that has evolved dramatically since it started tingling the tastebuds of post-partition India. What Jaggi and Gujral would make of the recent furore surrounding the dish is anyone's guess, although I suspect they'd be amused by some of its reincarnations.

Last year, mixologists at the Mumbai-based Woodside Inn made headlines when they came up with a Butter Chicken Cocktail: a spicy vodka-based tipple made with a splash of clarified gravy similar to the one used for butter chicken.

Tamara Hinson Daryaganj prides itself on the coarseness of the gravy in its butter chicken (Credit: Tamara Hinson)Tamara Hinson
Daryaganj prides itself on the coarseness of the gravy in its butter chicken (Credit: Tamara Hinson)

In Delhi, I've lost count of the number of restaurants serving butter chicken pizzas; while at the Shangri-La Eros' lobby cafe, I discover what might just be my favourite ode to butter chicken: a wonderfully flaky butter chicken samosa packed with the flavours that define this much-loved dish. "The tomato flavour is really important," said the hotel's executive chef Gagandeep Singh Sawhney, who believes new takes on this Delhi delicacy shouldn't be written off (although he draws the line at butter chicken cocktails). "Chefs don't want to spoil it, but if you maintain the authentic taste there's no harm in it."

In 1947 there weren't any blenders, and our butter chicken's tomato gravy is just like the original - Amit Bagga

My next stop that day was Daryaganj's Aerocity restaurant where artfully-exposed brickwork and vast expanses of wood and brass offered a nod to Indian Art Deco. Framed photos of popstars and politicians who've graced the restaurant with their presence hung from the walls, and I was curious about the dish that lured them here. The first thing I noticed about Daryaganj's butter chicken was the coarseness of the gravy, which had a satisfying grittiness. "In 1947 there weren't any blenders, and our butter chicken's tomato gravy is just like the original," said Bagga. "It's much more gravy-like than the sauces most butter chicken dishes are served with today."?

Later, I made it to a branch of Moti Mahal Delux. The butter chicken I ordered was delicious and packed with flavour, from a rich hit of vine-fresh tomatoes to an unexpected hit of chilli heat, although the sauce was smoother than the one served at Daryaganj. I wanted to know more about the recipe, but Moti Mahal Delux's owners, after initially agreeing to chat, had gone to ground. A spokesperson eventually told me that it's been decided there won't be any communication about any aspect of the company due to the court case. I couldn't help but suspect Moti Mahal Delux's owners are beginning to regret filing a lawsuit that might be impossible to win.?

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And I'm not alone. The University of Sheffield's Dr Neha Vermani, a cultural historian specialising in South Asia and the history of food, finds the notion that any individual can claim ownership of a dish hard to stomach. She's also got little time for those who tie its creation too closely to partition (butter chicken is often described as testament to the resilience of Hindu Punjabi refugees who left Peshawar and fled, often penniless, to Delhi post-partition).

Gulati Butter chicken has evolved dramatically since its invention in Peshawar (Credit: Gulati)Gulati
Butter chicken has evolved dramatically since its invention in Peshawar (Credit: Gulati)

"I'm amused by the belief that the dollops of butter in butter chicken were reflective of post-partition frugality," said Vermani, who also believes that suggesting that a dish such as butter chicken was the deliberate invention of one person erases the contributions of others.

"Nobody can claim to have invented a dish," she added. "If food history teaches us anything, it's that cuisines and dishes are part of an ever-evolving chain of inventions and interventions, built over centuries of not just intellectual labour but the manual labour of unnamed protagonists. Additionally, butter chicken wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the early trade networks that brought tomatoes from the transatlantic world to South Asia, and the ingenuity of people who grew what was then a new crop."

In the meantime, Bagga at Daryaganj is looking on the bright side. "Their case is about someone saying their grandfather invented butter chicken, but who knows which partner invented it?" And he says there's an upside to the class action that has generated headlines worldwide. "It's a great thing for butter chicken – our sales have rocketed! And our regular customers don't care. Sure, some people might come because of the story, but they won't return if the butter chicken isn't good."

Proof, it seems, that all publicity is good publicity. And who knows – perhaps Daryaganj's menu might soon include a butter chicken cocktail. Although I suspect not.

BBC.com's World's Table "smashes the kitchen ceiling" by changing the way the world thinks about food, through the past, present and future.

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