On the Butter Chicken Trail

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Author : Monish Gujral
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Publish date : 24 Nov 2010


What is a best Dish? It is not about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, or the creative blend of ingredients, flavours and colours. In the real business of food it is consistency and quality all the way. I have always upheld the 4Ps formula taught at Moti Mahal: product, place, price and people. The first is about the quality and consistency of the food served. The history of the Legendary Butter chicken revolves around this principle. As the story goes…

Moti Mahal, the restaurant that gave the world the celebrated butter chicken, the tandoori chicken and the dal makhani, has been capturing hearts since it was started over 85 years ago in Peshawar in 1920. As the story goes, young Kundan Lal, in the early1920s created the tandoori chicken only to impress his mentor, the owner of the eatery he worked for in Peshawar, then in undivided India. Following his employer’s request to serve him something light and not greasy, a novel idea struck him. He marinated chicken with some yoghurt and spices and lowered it into the hot clay oven, the tandoor, by piercing an iron wire into the marinated bird. (There were no skewers, as in those days the tandoor was only used to bake breads, such as naan, parantha and roti.) What came out was a tandoori chicken and the rest is history. Impressed with the new invention, the dish was soon added to the menu. Word spread and people flocked to taste the new dish. The restaurant, then known as a small eatery, became a landmark called Moti Mahal.

There are only a handful of chefs in the world who have been credited with the creation of a single dish let alone an entire cuisine. Kundan Lal was one of those rare chefs who gave the world a whole new cuisine called ‘Tandoori’ cuisine.

It was in the kitchens of Moti Mahal that butter chicken was also created. As the old saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of all inventions’. The tandoori chicken and the tikka would get dry hanging besides the hot tandoors all day long in those days, in the absence of refrigerators. To overcome such wastage, Kundan Lal again pondered and introduced the butter gravy. The combination of tandoori chicken and butter gravy proved to be a masterstroke and once again the taste buds of the old and the young, men and women alike, were tantalized by this butter chicken.

One day I was called upon by the Indian Express to demonstrate cooking butter chicken at the British Council, Delhi at the invitation of Mr Marsden, then the director of the Council. I accepted the invitation keenly enough. Mr Marsden’s words, after taking the first bite, still echo in my mind: ‘The bird has truly migrated.’ Today, CTM (chicken tikka masala) is the national dish of Britain. What is CTM? It is just a derivative of butter chicken. When Foreign Secretary Robin Cook showcased the chicken tikka masala as the symbol of multicultural Britain, he only succeeded in turning the boneless dish into a major bone of contention.

By declaring chicken tikka masala ‘Britain’s true national dish’ because ‘it is a perfect illustration’ of the way Cool Britannia ‘absorbs and adapts external influences’, Cook cooked up a racial row with serious political overtones, and unwittingly triggered a culinary controversy in the home of the chicken tikka. ‘Chicken tikka is an Indian dish,’ Cook declared in a speech. ‘The masala was sauce added to satisfy the desire of the British people to have their meat served in gravy.’ The Foreign Secretary’s advert for ‘an open and inclusive society’ immediately raised the hackles of sub-continental gastronomes that have made Britain the country of over 9,000 curry restaurants (compared with a measly ten in 1955). The same butter chicken, born in the kitchen of Moti Mahal fathered by Kundan Lal Gujral, continues to be born and reborn again and again in different avtars in different parts of the world but the soul remains the same….

First chef from India to be invited to Le cordon Bleu to demonstrate in Paris. Monish is credited with the trailblazing turn-around of Moti Mahal, from being a small but iconic presence in Delhi, to becoming a multi-national corporation that is well on its way to defining how the world eats Indian food. A traditionalist, Monish has remained true to the signature dishes that made Moti Mahal a legend, while reinventing the dining experience into one that is exciting and avant garde to suit modern sensibilities.

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