As accidental discoveries go, this one might not have changed the world, but it sure comes close.
A 100 years ago, in Peshawar before the partition of India, Chef Kundan Lal Gujral discovered a new way of cooking chicken by coating it in a red masala and sticking it in the tandoor used for making bread, giving birth to the tandoori chicken. Post partition, Gujral took the tandoori chicken with him to a new restaurant he set up in Delhi, called Moti Mahal.
Where it all started
At the end of every day, the restaurant would be left with cooked tandoori chicken that hadn’t been sold. In a bid to retain the juiciness and tenderness of the tandoori chicken, Gujral devised a sauce of tomato puree, fragrant spices and – you guessed it, butter. He then slow-stewed the chicken in it - fully oblivious of the fact he’d just created a delicacy that would soon curry favour across the globe.
The result of those two culinary inventions was a velvety, luxurious dish that quickly travelled from the restaurant onto tables from Perth to Paris, Dubai to London and New York. Today, butter chicken could easily be called the best-known Indian dish.
“Who knew Kundan Lal Gujral’s experiment to keep chicken juicy would be taken up with such gusto globally, loved by so many,” says Raman Gurang, General Manager of Moti Mahal’s Dubai branch, set up in 2016. “Its popularity in the US is owed to when John F Kennedy’s wife Jackie visited India in the 1960s and was served the dish at Moti Mahal. She then went on to publish the recipe in The New York Times. There was no looking back since….”
So, what makes for an authentic butter chicken?
Unlike new-fangled versions that use a cashewnut or almond gravy or even fenugreek, authentic butter chicken, also known as murgh makhni in India (and not to be confused with the chicken tikka masala born in the UK), uses “a 100 per cent tomato puree”, says Gurang. Herbs such as Kashmiri red chillies and garam masala are blended in.
Gurang attests to the complexity of the sauce. “The tandoori chicken, most people can cook it to a satisfying taste most times,” says Gurang. “But with butter chicken, it’s not easy finding the right balance of a bit sour, a bit sweet and a bit spicy. Even something as small as the order of ingredients matters. Like adding masala – whether you do it early on in the process before the onions or later determines a different taste, so every ingredient has to be added at its right time.”
Executive Chef Sonu Koithara at the Taj Jumeirah Lakes Towers has some fond memories surrounding the dish, calling it one of his all-time favourites growing up “something my mother made so often”.
He attributes the butter chicken’s wide-reaching popularity to its unique and distinctive flavours that are not overly spicy and hence “suitable for all palates. The smoky chicken, creamy tomato and tangy flavour with a hint of sweetness – these flavour profiles make the dish very comforting for any occasion. It is best accompanied with an Indian bread or rice.”
Chef Koithara has 5 tips on making the perfect butter chicken
• For tender chicken pieces, using a charcoal oven is the way to go
• Use ripe red tomatoes
• Purchase authentic Indian spices
• Slow cooking is recommended
• Purchase butter and cream of high quality
From butter chicken pasta to pizza
For all its worldwide approval ratings, the butter chicken has refused to remain stagnant, winding its way and seamlessly integrating into staples from other countries - think butter chicken pizza, burger, poutine, makhni paratha and pasta. Chef Koithara adds further unconventional twists to the list - rolls, lasagne, pasta sauce, butter egg curry, and butter chicken Bunny Chow.
This unapologetically ever-evolving nature might not sit well with the purists, but neither Chef Koithara nor Gurang see a problem with it. “These fusion dishes keep the delicacy alive in innovative and creative ways,” says Koithara.
“If you want the authentic flavour, you make it with the tomato gravy, and stay away from the fusion. A dish can’t survive as just one iteration, innovation is necessary,” adds Gurang.
Even the humble curry has evolved with time, with different variations being developed in different regions in India and globally.
“Variations include differences in the colour, texture, cooking methods, ingredients and flavour, and are usually linked to the palate of the region,” says Koithara. “For example, the use of tandoori chicken or regular chicken, the addition of red chilli or honey, the quantity of butter and cream used and the combination of garam masala… these differ everywhere.
“By creating these variations and adapting the recipe to suit different regions, the dish is increasing in popularity and getting recognition across the globe – which, ultimately, is great for Indian cuisine.”
The secret recipe
It might not be an easy sauce to prepare, but it calls for easy-to-find ingredients, most already in your pantry. We asked Moti Mahal for their decades’ old recipe that has tickled palates across the globe – here it is!
Moti Mahal’s Signature Butter Chicken
For the chicken:
680gm boneless, skinless chicken (cut into 4cm chunks)
1 tbsp fresh lime juice
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp garam masala
1½ tsp salt
1/4 cup plain, full-fat yoghurt
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tbsp finely minced fresh ginger root
For the sauce
2 tbsp canola or vegetable oil
1 yellow onion, finely chopped
4 medium tomatoes, hulled and chopped
1 tsp minced garlic
2 tsp peeled minced fresh ginger root
1 tbsp Kashmiri chilli powder
1 tbsp garam masala
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tbsp salted butter
1/3 cup thick cream
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Grease a rimmed baking sheet with cooking oil spray.
Combine the chicken with lime juice, chilli powder, garam masala, salt, yoghurt, garlic and ginger in a mixing bowl, and then spread evenly over the baking sheet.
Roast (middle rack) for 15 to 18 minutes, until the chicken is just cooked through.
Meanwhile, to make the sauce, heat the oil in a pot over medium heat.
Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook for two or three minutes until softened. Stir in the tomato, cook for 10 to 12 minutes.
Use a spatula to press the sauce through a fine-mesh strainer back into the pot, or puree with an immersion (stick) blender right in the pot.
Stir in the garlic, ginger, chilli powder, garam masala and cumin until well blended, then add the chicken, stirring to coat it with sauce.
Cook for three to five minutes, till heated through. Just before serving, add the butter.
Once it has melted, stir in the cream, until well incorporated.
Immediately remove from the heat, and serve warm.