As a butter of fact
Why does butter chicken taste better in Delhi than Mumbai? Pritam da Dhaba and Sion Koliwada's stalls serve delicious versions, yes, but if you want to watch chefs interpret a pre-Independence India dish to perfection, go north
When I was packing my bags for the capital, a foodie friend from Mumbai asked, "Why does butter chicken taste different in Delhi?"
"It is the place of origin," I had said.
While Dadar's Pritam da Dhaba and stalls at Sion Koliwada serve remarkable versions, it is true that the dish has seen many avatars, with the addition of garam masala, butter-cream, sugar and onions.
Butter chicken's back story goes all the way to Peshawar in undivided India of the 1920s. A gentleman named Mokha Singh ran a dhaba called Moti Mahal. It was manned by Kundan Lal Jaggi, Kundan Lal Gujral and Thakurdas Mago. It is here that the tandoor, usually used to make roti, was for the first time used to make tandoori chicken.
In 1947, the four found themselves as refugees in Delhi of new India. While Singh backed out, the other three started Moti Mahal, whose kitchen produced the same flavourful recipe from Peshawar.
"One day, at the end of service, 20 customers walked in. Realising the tandoori chicken available wouldn't suffice, Kundan Lal Jaggi added a curry made with butter and tomato," remembers Amit Bagga, who opened Daryaganj this year with Raghav Jaggi, late Kundan Lal's grandson. In 1979, Mago sold his share equally between Jaggi and Gujral. In early 1990s, the two sold off Moti Mahal at Daryaganj to a certain Vinod Chadha. Incidentally, till date, there is a dispute between the two families on the original creator of butter chicken.
Tandoor chicken is used to make butter chicken at Wok in the Clouds
My first plate of butter chicken in Delhi is at Rajinder da Dhaba in Safdarjung Enclave. It's a flamboyant version with a higher butter-cream ratio. The finger-licking good gravy can leave you stuffed and with heartburn but is fully worth it. The location carries the feel of a mela, with customers seated on steps, digging into seena (breast), and chicken curry till the wee hours.
At Daryaganj 's outlets in Aerocity and Connaught Place, the attempt is to replicate the original classic. "When the dish was first made, the time was 1947 and there were no mixies. Everything was hand-pounded. And so, our version has a coarse gravy, made with tomato, makhan and chillies. We don't use boiled chicken. It's always tandoored. Champagne is not champagne if not made in Champagne, right? Butter chicken is not butter chicken if made without tandoori chicken," Bagga says.
The recipe at Daryaganj restaurant—which I hear is soon to open more outlets in Delhi and debut in Mumbai —has been standardised by Shipra Misra. "Chefs are used to using dollops of cream and garam masala. We want to recreate the original here," she says. Through the seven decades since the first plate was made, every chef who has attempted the dish has added a personal touch. Some have used onion, others sugar and cream.
Chef Garima Prakash, chef de cuisine at Wok in the Clouds, says, this is true of every classic. "Butter chicken changed as it moved from region to region, depending on how chefs interpreted it. Every state has a dominant cuisine and all others must modify themselves to suit it. In Delhi, Chinese is Punjabi. South Indian is also Punjabi. Go to Om Sweets. The regular dosa is stuffed with paneer."
The tandoori chicken at Wok is meat-forward with minimal marination. "Any kebab should be marinated in salt, ginger-garlic and lemon. Interestingly, marination is not an Indian concept. It's derived from French cuisine, where meats were pickled in charcuterie shops to up their shelf life," she explains. First, the protein is rubbed with salt to start osmosis where molecules of a solvent move from higher pressure to lower pressure. The meat absorbs the salt and lets out excess water. The second marination round takes place after excess water is drained. "Otherwise, all you get is a runny marinade that the meat cannot soak," she explains.
The Daryagang restaurant version has a course hand-pounded gravy
Last month, I ended up at Moghul Mahal in Rajendra Place. Entering the 42-year-old restaurant is like stepping into a time warp. A tacky wallpaper of a begum and badshah sits on the wall while a well-lit bar is busy serving drinks. The butter chicken here shines because of its partner, the naan. Beautifully layered and crispy-edged, it has a soft purdah centre holding butter. This rendition is the unplugged version, a bit disconnected with thin gravy. But, the taste grows on me.
I ask to speak to the chef, but a man who identifies simply as Ganesh walks up to the table, half expecting me to complain. "This is the recipe we've followed for 42 years. The cream comes from Ashram [West Delhi] and we don't use onion, garam masala or khoya. Our old customers order it without opening the menu, but the newer ones have a different opinion."
My companion to Moghul Mahal, Mohit Balachandran, who is chief business officer at EazyDiner and better known as Chowder Singh, puts it best: The restaurant needs to be respected for sticking to its guns and serving a standard recipe for half a decade. Who are we to judge? Like it, eat it. If not, move to the next dhaba. You'll find one that suits your palate."
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