Butter chicken

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Who owns it?

It's sort of like who owns kimchee, Koreans (of course!) or Chinese — we've been through that many times — except that the question of who has the rights to claim they invented butter chicken is ostensibly internecine / intranational rather than international (but maybe not [see below]), as is the case with kimchee.

"India’s courts to rule on who invented butter chicken:  Two Delhi restaurants both claim to have the right to call themselves the home of the original butter chicken recipe" by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, The Guardian (1/25/24)

Judging from the account in The Guardian, the squabbling between the two Delhi restaurants is both picayune and misplaced:

The lawsuit to decide the matter was brought by the family who run Moti Mahal, a storied Delhi restaurant that counted India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, among its customers.

According to the Gujral family, the dish was the creation of their grandfather Kundan Lal Gujral who founded the restaurant in Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan. After India was split during partition in 1947, they moved the restaurant to Delhi.

They say the recipe, an indulgent curry that involves tender pieces of chicken cooked in a tandoor oven mixed into a rich tomato gravy laden with butter and cream, was invented by Gujral in the 1930s to use up leftover tandoor chicken.

“You cannot take away somebody’s legacy … The dish was invented when our grandfather was in Pakistan,” Monish Gujral, the managing director at Moti Mahal, told Reuters.

But rival restaurant Daryaganj has also staked its claim to butter chicken’s origins. The restaurant owners say that their relative, Kundan Lal Jaggi, had worked with Gujral when he moved his restaurant to Delhi in 1947 and it was there that butter chicken was created. This, they say, gives them the right to call themselves home to the first serving of the dish, a claim they say they trademarked in 2018.

As well as seeking rights to the title of butter chicken inventor, the Gujral family is seeking $240,000 in damages.

Given the slow pace of India’s courts, the pressing question of butter chicken’s origins may not be solved for months or even years. The next hearing of the case will be in May.

After minimal investigation, I'm of the opinion that the case should be thrown out of the courts altogether.  As Language Log reader AntC opines:  "I would have guessed Butter Chicken would be one of those pseudo-Indian dishes actually invented in Britain. I find it revoltingly sweet and over-rich."  I must say that I've met many South Asians who think that butter chicken came to India from Great Britain.

My beef (!) with the whole suit is that most people seem to be referring to this dish as "butter chicken" (baṭar chikan बटर चिकन), whereas — if it really is an authentic Peshawar or Delhi dish — it should be murg makhanī मुर्ग मखनी (murg ["chicken"] and makhanī ["butter"]).  Incidentally, the title of the Hindi Wikipedia article on this dish is chikan makhanī चिकन मखानी!

I think that Daryaganj should be enjoined from claiming they created butter chicken because it is clear that their relative, Kundan Lal Jaggi, was working with Monish Gujral when they moved from Peshawar and founded Moti Mahal in Delhi.  It was there that butter chicken began to be served, though it already  had its roots in Panjabi cuisine that came from a small Moti Mahal eatery in Peshawar with which this style of cooking was associated and that Monish Gujral initiated the dish before coming to Delhi.  (See here, here, and the Guardian article.)

Contrast the litigious hullabaloo over butter chicken with the hallowed history of Philly cheesesteaks.  Although shrouded in legend and served up to visiting potentates, politicians, and players by competing maestros / maestri, common opinion civilly credits brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri with its invention, even though its chief competitor, Geno's Steaks, is right down S. 9th St. less than a block away from Pat's.

Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    January 27, 2024 @ 2:09 pm

    I would agree with AntC that butter chicken can be excessively sweet and rich, but it can also be delicious (and I speak as one who loathes chicken tikka masala). If Ant ever has the opportunity, I would suggest that he tries the butter chicken from Cone Zone, Khalifa CIty, Abu Dhabi — it was only after trying their version that I was able to appreciate what the dish can be when well prepared. But even if a restaurant lists it as murgh makhani, that is no guarantee that it will be authentic in my experience (Cone Zone list it as butter chicken).

  2. /df said,

    January 27, 2024 @ 8:39 pm

    "Indian Cookery" (Dharamjit Singh, Penguin, 1970), a book that features what the author considers traditional Indian recipes and techniques from decades earlier ("New generations are growing up with no knowledge of the superb traditions …"), lists "Murgh Makhni (Buttered Chicken)" (sic) as a simple dish featuring only black pepper and bay leaves, where roast chicken pieces are reheated with butter and yoghurt. The author, from the capital of Punjab, refers to the dish originating with chicken from the tandoor.

    As the date of this book is significantly earlier than 1975 when, as the WP entry claims, '… the English phrase "butter chicken" curry first appeared in print, as a specialty of the house at Gaylord Indian restaurant in Manhattan', perhaps the term had been re-purposed at that time. In any case, global city that NYC was and is, I would be surprised if novel Punjabi recipes were featured there ahead of London, Birmingham, Glasgow, etc.

    Only 3 of several hundred recipes in "Indian Cookery" feature tomatoes. The dish that is called chicken tikka masala in the UK has tomatoes and possibly nuts, leading to the accusation of sweetness. Although that dish, like the Gaylord tamat[t]ar-based butter chicken, is said to be a recent invention, it's difficult to imagine that no subcontinental korma chef came up with such a combo in the several centuries since tomatoes reached Asia. Indeed, the same book offers "Murgh Badam Sheer-Jogurath" where a spicier chicken is sautéed in butter and then basted in yoghurt and finally cream and slivered almonds as a pot roast. A chef would only have to add chopped tomatoes and enough sauce to avoid it drying out before the chicken is done to create something very like CTM or Gaylord's butter chicken. This could have happened many times with or without left-over sauce or an over-supply of Campbell's Cream of Tomato.

  3. AntC said,

    January 28, 2024 @ 1:01 am

    Thank you /df, excellent research.

    I also have a Dharamjit Singh from that vintage. (But I'm currently travelling/am in the wrong hemisphere to access it.) All of his recipes are far more austere than what I'd call 'Indian Restaurant Style' in London at that time. (And I'd say those have got richer/sicklier since.)

    Might we guess this whole drama is a 'put up job' for publicity? Perhaps the rivals are actually in cahoots? The longer it drags on, the better as far as they're concerned.

  4. /df said,

    January 28, 2024 @ 4:43 pm

    Indeed, just as WP mentions that the CTM creation story from Glasgow involving Cream of Tomato soup was perhaps invented for a publicity stunt.

  5. maidhc said,

    January 30, 2024 @ 3:35 am

    There are two restaurants in Los Angeles, Philippe The Original and Cole's, that each claim to have invented the French Dip sandwich, but I don't think it has ever gone to court.

    I don't know much about Indian law, but it's hard to understand on what basis a court could rule on something like this. A 2018 trademark on something that's been around since 1947 doesn't seem worth much.

    AntC may be on to something. As long as this stays in the news, will people be more likely to try both to compare?

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