RULING THE ROOST
SOME WEEKS ago, I wrote about sushi. It was so popular, I said, that it had become the new butter chicken. To which some readers responded: why, what’s wrong with the old butter chicken? And sure enough, just as that column appeared, I was invited by Saransh Goila for a food tasting. You probably know Saransh. He’s one of the best and the brightest of a new generation of TV chefs. But his latest ambition has nothing to do with TV. He intends to open a chain of restaurants called Goila Butter Chicken all over India. The first, in Andheri, should be opening around now.
The centrepiece of Saransh’s menu is, as you may have guessed, butter chicken. He serves it in many guises – in a biryani, in a bun, etc – it’s fair to say that if you don’t like butter chicken, you probably won’t go to his restaurant.
Because I like Saransh and did not want to disappoint him, I went to the tasting with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. His butter chicken gravy was outstanding. I asked him where he’d got the recipe from. He said that it was his own adaptation. He had grown up on the original, he explained, and mentioned restaurants in Rajendra Nagar and west Delhi that I’ve not had the pleasure of visiting.
A week later, I went to the Delhi Pavilion, the coffee shop at ITC’s Sheraton New Delhi hotel. (I should amend that. We’re not supposed to call them coffee shops. They are “all-day dining places”.) Though the restaurant serves the
From Peshawar to Delhi. From Delhi to the rest of the world. The Butter Chicken’s journey has only just begun
In the 1920s, a man called Kundanlal Gujral, along with his partner, Mukha Singh, ran a dhaba at the back corner of Gora Bazar in Peshawar. They popularised tandoori chicken in their little corner of the world but faced a problem: what to do with the chickens that went unsold?
Gujral had the idea of making a curry, in which the dried-out chickens could be softened and served. He invented the butter chicken sauce using tomatoes, butter and cream. The original recipe called for hardly any spices, just a little cumin, a spoonful of mirch, and salt. The brilliance lay in the skillful combination of tomatoes and dairy fat. (Gujral was to repeat the same combination to create the Dal Makhni that is still served by every north Indian restaurant.)
Post-Partition, Gujral came to Delhi, set up Moti Mahal and turned tandoori chicken into the most famous Indian dish in the world. His butter chicken went on to become the country’s most popular curry.
I asked Monish Gujral, Kundanlal’s grandson, what he made of the butter chicken boom. I told him that when I tweeted a photo of chef Vipul’s butter chicken, I got a torrent of replies. Everyone had his or her own butter chicken place and insisted that it was the best. Some people even claimed that it was a Hyderabadi dish and you could not get ‘real’ butter chicken outside of Hyderabad.
Gujral is philosophical about the flight of the butter chicken. He accepts that most modern versions use ingredients that go far beyond Kundanlal’s original. Saransh’s version, for instance, uses kasuri methi. Most other restaurants use cashewnut paste to thicken the gravy. (I think everyone who goes to catering college in India spends one whole semester learning how to put kaju paste in everything.) Vipul sweetens the Delhi Pavilion butter chicken with a dash of honey. Less fancy places simply use sugar.
Even within Moti Mahal, there is no one consistent recipe. After Kundanlal died, the original Moti Mahal in Daryaganj passed out of his family’s control. Another chain ran many restaurants under the name of Moti Mahal Deluxe without the involvement of Kundanlal’s family. Monish has reclaimed his ancestral legacy and now operates or franchises over a hundred Moti Mahals all over the world.