It’s one of the most popular restaurant dishes on Indian menus all across the world. Unlike more complex curries, this one is simplistic. There is no sophisticated spicing or intricate cooking process to wax eloquent about, yet butter chicken continues to incite both love and war! Which restaurant serves the “best” version? What indeed defines “best”? What is the ideal flavour profile of the dish — beyond tomato-y and smooth? Is a little sugar warranted to balance desi tomato tartness?
Are homely versions sans cream, with dollops of white butter nevertheless, preferable to chefy creations? How much spice should you use? For a no-brainer of a dish, it is incredible how hotly debated butter chicken can be. Like with much of Indian food, it is really the sauce (and the balance of three key flavours within it — tart, creamy and spice) that makes the dish. Not the main protein, the fowl. After all, the rich makhni gravy was concocted to specifically rescue dried, left-over chicken.
Or, so the legend goes.
Kundan Lal Gujral, an immigrant from Lahore landed up in Delhi post Partition, carrying with him the tandoor, till then unfamiliar to Delhiwallas steeped in Mughal traditions. He set up the restaurant Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, serving tandoori chicken and breads baked in the same oven, and later black urad dal. The restaurant’s star dish however was to be invented a little later — when perhaps demand for a gravy item, or necessity to recycle left-over tandoori morsels led to the creation of makhni: tomatoes, cream, butter and a hint of spice. What’s not to like? This was fresh, uncomplicated food, different from refined, intricately-cooked qormas and qaliyas of the Walled City. It’s possible to look at it as the 1950s version of McDonald’s — Delhi’s own fast food, even though it began to be served in fancy restaurants. Like McDonald’s proved almost half a century later when it sneaked up on middle-class India, uncomplicated pop foods can redefine cultural histories.
Butter chicken’s place within Indian culinary history has always been guaranteed. Its popularity remains undiminished. While there may be no need to tamper with the classic gravy, restaurants and chefs are nevertheless now serving up gentrified versions, putting spins on the makhani, milking its popularity while attempting to give millennial audience something new.
How does a simple, plebian sauce turn into a chefy dish? At Indian Accent, the country’s top restaurant, butter chicken kulcha has always been on the menu and is overwhelmingly popular. An earlier menu toyed with butter chicken kofte too, altering the shape and therefore the experience. In Mumbai, chef Vikramjit Roy of POH talks about a new recipe in the making with green apple puree and a generous splash of Bourbon to complement the sweet-sourness of the dish. Another inventive version fashionable in Mumbai is the butter chicken pot pie by Hungry Cat Kitchen, a continental caterer, where smoky butter chicken morsels come topped with puff pastry!
Butter chicken as a young, millennial dish has perhaps been most successfully reinvented by TV chef Saransh Goila, whose Goila Butter Chicken is as smart a business idea today as Kundan Lal Gujral’s original was 70 years ago. Goila, who smokes the gravy, has a takeaway model, offering comfort food backed with savvy social media marketing, branding his butter chicken.
Next month, Goila Butter Chicken goes to George Calombaris’s Press Club in Melbourne, guaranteeing even more attention from the Masterchef generation. While chefs have toyed around with ideas of butter chicken risotto and pasta, chef Vikram Vij in Vancouver, globally renowned, has a recipe for butter chicken schnitzel where a perfectly crumbed cutlet is served alongside makhni sauce. Butter chicken, however, is being contemporarised in more than one way, including no-cream versions.
Karma Kismet, a new restaurant in Delhi, has murgh makhni cooked with almond paste and khoya substituting cream and butter. The restaurant’s menu has been done by Bangkok-based chef Dipankar Khosla who runs a takeaway for healthy foods in that city. While you may question the validity of khoya, milk-solid, replacing cream, nut paste, more an ingredient of courtly Mughalai dishes, is a healthier substitute.
Newer restaurants are revisiting some of these older recipes too. Punjab Grill which has opened an outlet at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai, has a recipe from the 1960s which is much lighter.
For years, Punjabi stereotypes revolved around bingeing on robust butter chicken after a bout of serious “scotch” drinking. Social in Delhi has cleverly parodied this — with a version of Black Label butter chicken; 15-20 ml of the whisky is added once the dish is ready.
It is the balance between tomato and cream that is key. I analysed half a dozen recipes from chefs and restaurants to decipher the standard sauce. However, there seems to be no standard at all.
However, it turns out that one of my favourite versions of the dish has entirely different proportions. Usha Batra’s recipe, for long a favourite at banqueting events in Delhi and now on the Café Delhi Heights menu, uses a whopping 500 g tomatoes and 250 g butter + cream with 250 g chicken.