Butter Chicken, which is one of the richest dishes of India is prepared with succulent pieces of chicken that are dipped in a combination of cream, spices and tomatoes. This popular dish is a culinary success that is a treat for the palates throughout the world. The dish, which is known as Murgh Makhani in Hindi is a very popular dish of India that is prepared around the world. Although this dish is a favorite throughout the country, few Indians know how butter chicken originated.
How and When was “butter chicken” created?
The story of butter chicken starts with the evolution of delicious tandoori chicken. The latter originated in Gora Bazaar, Peshawar where a man named Mokha Singh Lamba started a restaurant 100 years ago. A young chef in the restaurant by the name of Kundan Lal Gujral wanted to do an experiment, so he started skewering yoghurt marinated pieces of chicken and cooking them in a tandoor, which was used for making breads in the past. And thus, the popular dish called “tandoori chicken” was created.
The dish, which is prepared by the heat of clay tandoor has fragrant and flavour of smoke coming out of hot coals. The version of the dish which was prepared by Gujral was prepared with crispy skin and exterior that is bright red. The dish became a huge hit until Gujral was forced to leave Pakistan during 1947 partition.
When Gujral came to Delhi, he found a restaurant named Moti Mahal which is located in Daryaganj. At that time, there was a lack of refrigeration facilities due to which Gujral had to innovate again and avoid wastage, especially the tandoori tikkas that were unsold. He came to conclusion that tomato gravy, which is filled with butter and cream would soften his leftover chicken. The combination was a huge hit and thus by accident, this delicious dish came into being.
The trick behind this mildly spiced recipe is a combination of tangy tomatoes and rich dairy. Gujral created a dish that was going to be a hit. Gujral then went ahead to create Dal Makhani which is another great dish that has similar preparation.
During the 1950’s, the Moti Mahal was very popular among celebrities and world leaders like Zakir Hussain, Richard Nixon, Jawahar Lal Nehru and J.F. Kennedy. The first education minister of India i.e. Maulana Azad told Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi that he must visit the Taj Mahal in Agra and Moti Mahal in Delhi. And thus, he became one of the most renowned patrons of Moti Mahal.
The butter chicken became so popular that many other restaurants came up with their own versions of this classic dish. This resulted in different variations like Chicken Lababdar, Mumbai-style Murgh Makhanwallah and Chicken Tikka Masala.
The chicken lababdar is prepared by mixing makhni gravy and onion masala, which is used in Mughlai dishes. To lend a creamier, richer taste to the dish, you must add ingredients like poppy seeds, almonds, cashew nuts or char magaz(which is a combination of 4 seeds/nuts: pumpkin seeds, almonds, watermelon seeds and cantaloupe seeds). These ingredients give creamier and richer taste to the dish.
Another great variant is chicken tikka masala, which is a gravy dish that contains tikka chunks, cream, combination of tomatoes and spices. This version is basically butter chicken without bones. Tikka which means ‘bits and pieces’ refers to boneless chicken that is marinated in spiced yoghurt and cut into small pieces and baked in tandoor.
In the year 2001, chicken tikka masala was named ‘British National Dish’ by Robin Cook(Foreign Secretary). This resulted in a fierce debate on the origins of this popular dish. Some people believe that the dish was invented by first Mughal emperor, Babur, who was afraid that he would choke on chicken bones. So, he ordered his chefs that they should remove them.
Zaeemuddin Ahmad, who is a chef at Karim Hotel, Delhi said that the recipe of tikka masala has passed through generations of his family. The recipe, according to him originated during the reign of Bahadur Shah II(1837-1857).
In the 1970s, chicken tikka was ordered at Sheesh Mahal by a British man. When it arrived, the man complained that it was very dry. So, the owner of the restaurant, Ali Aslam Ahmed tossed a tin of canned tomato soup on the tikka and added some yoghurt and spices and thus, this popular dish of Britain came into being.
The butter chicken, with its many equally-delightful variants are a perfect example of the fact that best things in life are discovered by accident. Little did Kundan Lal Gujral know that when he invented Butter Chicken, he was creating history. Without his experimenting, we would not have known Butter Chicken, Dal Makhani or Tandoori Chicken.