The Butter Chicken Story
This Staple of Indian Restaurants Started from Humble Beginnings and Rose to Universal Acclaim
I can still, somewhat to my dismay, remember the first time I tried butter chicken. Far from the delicious staple found in almost every Indian restaurant the world over, the version that I sampled as a teenager came frozen in a box, and was prepared by microwave. As I write this I can imagine you, the reader, shuddering at the thought – frozen, premade, and heated in the microwave? To say the least I was underwhelmed. I was also unprepared for just how savoury the real deal would be.
The dish, which is also called Murgh Makhani in Hindi, is without question the most popular dish to emerge from India; it may even be one of the most popular dishes in the world. If you are just going to an Indian restaurant for the first time, your friends will likely recommend it as a starting place. Its mildly spicy, creamy, savoury flavour makes it more than just delicious, but accessible to almost every palate.
Butter chicken originated in Delhi, the capital territory of India, sometime during the 1950s. During this time, a man named Kundan Lal Gurjal operated a restaurant in the city, called Moti Mahal. Kundan had settled here and started his business after fleeing from political upheaval in another region of India. Moti Mahal was a success, serving many delightful tandoori dishes (a tandoor is a circular clay oven, and can be found in any Indian restaurant worth its salt).
So the story goes, the cooks of Moti Mahal would mix leftover marinade juices with butter and tomato, and then stew the tandoor-cooked chicken in it. It’s unlikely that they had even the faintest idea of what they had stumbled upon – that is, an internationally-loved delicacy. But it is an irrefutable truth of the world that often the best things in life are discovered quite by accident.
Kundan’s restaurant quickly became a famous attraction of Delhi, and it wasn’t long before butter chicken proliferated throughout the world, to be enjoyed by people from every walk of life.
What gives the dish its distinctive flavour is its unique blend of spices, perfected over time. Typically, an Indian restaurant will marinate the chicken for hours in yogurt blended with spices like garlic, coriander, garam marsala, ginger, cumin, and others – it may vary from place to place. Then it’s cooked (typically tandoori-style) and simmered in a mild curry sauce rich with butter, and in some cases, almonds and raisins as well.
The result? A dish that has to be tasted to be believed, and one that’s a far cry from the disappointment I once found in the frozen food section over a decade ago. If you’re wondering exactly what it takes to make a worldwide sensation, one taste of butter chicken, the way it’s prepared in a quality Indian restaurant, will make you wonder no longer. But don’t take my word for it – after all, tasting is believing!