Digging deep into the historic origins of butter chicken


Irrespective of whether one orders it every time or never ever in its more than common presence across the menu pages of restaurants all over the country and even abroad, butter chicken is a dish that needs no introduction. Loaded indeed with ridiculous amounts of butter in much obviousness, and as much loathed in its peculiar sweet flavour as it is loved for, this non traditional but classic still Indian preparation of chicken asserts as one of the many components conjuring up the identity of the country’s vast reservoir of curries. And as a food closely tracing of the timeline itself of the country’s independence, at least almost in the number of years of its own existence, butter chicken makes for a serving of the contemporary Indianness that one simply cannot be not aware of.

For all its prominence in slight but significant still sweetness though, the sheen of butter chicken tends to be rather multifarious. Back when it started out in chance assuming of definite identity- or rather the expanse from where it did, this dish of widespread fame tended to be a more prominent taste of a somewhat sharp tang that it derived from its characteristic steeping in considerable a count of the tomato. That essence of it has persisted still, with a cosmopolitan character defining the dimensions of its experiencing as a flavorful burst in the mouth tinged with tastes of the savoury and the sweet alike, with also undertones of a smacking tang and a zesty spiciness. And this all encompassing fusion of the butter chicken is what renders it so popular a presence upon plates lined with naans or laden with rice instead, establishing also thereby its versatility across diverse areas of gastronomic working.

butter chicken
Source: Network Ten

And yet the underplays of the sweetnesses also threatens many a times to undermine the popularity of this dish that have earned for itself surprising some residing in differential preferences. That however might be only ‘justified’, given that back when it emerged as an accidental discovery, a serendipitous occurrence rather that would go on to amass worldwide fame as butter chicken, it had been and still is at least in that exact zone of its origins a dish proclaimedly piquant in its assertive sourness in taste. And despite the assertion that follows today as a mark of its unmistakable grandeur in knowingness, this actually is a culinary revelation riding on the appeal of in fact another more ingenious devising in lipsmackingness, equally iconic in its occurring as yet another central character in the context of delivering titillating desi Indian mouthfeels.

Led on thus by the definitive description in what strikes as tandoori chicken, pieces of chicken cooked to succulent perfection as what was and still is indeed an exemplary serving of the experience in indulgent devouring, butter chicken developed thus as a very necessary means in fact in ensuring that none of those entities in deliciousness charred to red hot crispiness would go to waste even in their excess. Butter chicken thus took form, as an identity in an as reddish gravy that would immerse these pieces of tandoor cooked meat in its own simmering goodness of many an assertion in ingredients, each as dramatic in their working as could be for a staple of the Indian food scene in times to follow immediately thereafter and ever since in thumping proclamation of its divine power in appeasing to immenseness the vast demands of diversely fussy appetites.

All onus of such legendary invention or discovery, whether in chance or in creativeness, rests upon a certain Kundan Lal Gujrar, then a young chef distinguished in his cooking up quite a storm with both of these popular favorites to his name, and even a couple more to boast of in as much iconic identities of the dal makhani and the paneer makhani. The tale of his treading such trails of temptation has its genesis almost some 100 years back in what then occurred as the geographical region of Peshawar with the chicken being made to find its way into the bread dominated confines of the heated tandoor at first. As pieces of chicken marinated with yoghurt and spices were introduced as skewered entities waiting to be ‘devoured’ by the raging temperatures of the traditional clay oven sort of arrangement, tandoori chicken came into being as a red hot invention, one that was a delightful indeed delivery in delectableness, what with the juicy insides of the chicken complementing so perfectly the acquired texture in crispiness on the outside, eked out in much magnificence by the elaborately engineered and yet basic still mechanism of the tandoor.

It would be out of this very stimulation of the senses availed through the forever fancies of the food kind that Gujral would dish out yet another creation in no less scrumptiousness to even more greatly exert his own prominence and experience in elevating singular ingredients into such diametrically diverse and dynamic expanses in droolworthiness. The settings of origin though would change, both in the period and premises of its unfurling as Gujral found himself fleeing the horrors of a by then partitioned Indian to find instead in Delhi this time another calling of fame. It was in this place of recognition that would go on to be the capital of the country that Gujral capitalised as well on his idea in ensuring that none of those skewers of scrumptiousness should experience the shame of wastage.

Driven by such noble idea in utter display of respect to the essence of the food that sustains us, Gujral developed his method of preparing chicken, tandoori chicken to be specific as a main dish well transforming the manner and mode of both presentation and characterisation of what is basically an appetiser, or an entrée to send the taste buds into a tizzy along the most unexpected lengths and lines of the epicurean. Establishing by then his own restaurant, the as iconic Moti Mahal Delux along with a namesake Kundan Lal Jaggi and another Thakur Dass, and named after that same eatery in which the trio had worked while in Peshawar and that which marked the expanse for the emergence of the tandoori chicken, Gujral thus established himself even more assertively in the echelons of Indian food history with this particularly phenomenal dishing of fare in the year of 1950 to be the true pioneer indeed in this unique arena of fostering Indianness even in not exactly traditional pursuits of it.

moti mahal restaurant
Source: MENU Magazine

But while the recipe for butter chicken might have closely followed on the heels of the simultaneous establishing of India as an independent state and the opening of Moti Mahal as a restaurant in 1947, the immensely iterative name for it would not exist at least until the 1970s. It was in the year of 1975, a good quarter of a century after it was devised that butter chicken as such would come to be a thing, alluding exactly to what it is known for and as in current times. And it is again in such anglicisation of its identity that butter chicken would go on to command worldwide acceptance as well.

In fact this very assuming of name by the dish happens to be a reflection of its popularity, manifesting specifically as a specialty of a Manhattan restaurant. Even today in some regions of the Caribbean and the Americas for instance, butter chicken often happens to be a filling in everything from the very expected wraps and rotis and rolls to the unthinkable expanse of pizzas and poutines and the like. Australia and New Zealand’s mode of indulgence in this dish happens to find preference as pie fillings, which is surprising and not at the same time in its almost similar but still different way of digging that has made this dish a globetrotter in the sheer awareness of it. Consider also the fusion appreciation of the butter chicken in its serving as the ‘sauce’ for pasta preps in India as well and there sure is no arena of potential that this dynamic dish has not been made to venture out on.

The premise upon which the butter chicken stands out proud and enticing in its very evident richness playing out firstly in terms of aroma and appearance in color and thickness and of course the creamy smoothness and moving on thereafter to emerge as equally worthy an experience for the ultimate euphoria of tastes as well is also one of almost opposites. Remarkable it might have been in its origins at a time when food experimentation was rarely heard of but consider the overwhelming almost repertoire of fusion recipes and innovative curations of ingredients as basic or as exotic as can be and the butter chicken might seem to feel flat on its face. But the fact that it has managed to sustain still and not wane even a bit even in appeal is what spells out a thumping victory for its identity in being a classic that warms hearts and delights the senses to have led it in charting out an importance for itself as a true classic, even when it isn’t by any chance the most authentic of heritage recipes. Historic though it still is and will continue to be indeed in its evoking of the pleasant assertions in comfort and familiarity and assurance that which makes it a favorite even for the most picky of childish and childlike eaters as well.

Of course with a flavor profile that has some amount of something for everyone, it would have been hard for the very royal sounding but actually quite ordinary murgh makhani to fail in being the palate pleaser that it is. With such universal elements of tomatoes and onions and butter in the fray to eke out something that is easy to make and elegant to look and exceptional to taste, the butter chicken has every single ingredient of it helping it to play safe. But even in its convenience in dwelling, it also is an adherence to food science that helps the butter chicken to hold on to its relevance even across the changing chasms of time.

Loaded with a wide range of spices so essential to the Indian culinary curation but balanced still in its levels of heat, even as a medley of such herbs and spices and the basic ingredients as well serve to avail of a balanced goodness in adhering to the Ayurvedic guidance in eating and living, while emerging still as that irresistible visage of velvety texture and creamy glossiness that also sends off wafting divine aromas in ruling legacy is this surprisingly mild dish despite its very ‘inciting’ prominence in both popularity and aesthetics that has made this effectuation of twist availed out of the traditional expanse of the tandoor retain its appeal across all elements of characterisation.

Not to mention the all encompassing assertion of tastes that it sums up within its singular fore of what is actually a composition in iconic versatility as well and the charm of every single serving of butter chicken is such that demands absolute gorging over its gorgeousness. Versatile as well and inclusive as such in also its allowing for numerous tweaks and interpretations of the original recipe and prevailing thus in countless versions of it, each residing in a taste uniquely defining of their particularity, this global gambit in the gastronomic giganticness of the Indian fame is one cooked to the peaks of absolute perfection for sure. So perfect in fact is this legendary envisioning of the chicken in this stature of a dish that also commands its own exclusive global celebration every year on October 20th as World Butter Chicken Day.