India’s spicy dispute over the origins of butter chicken

The old saying “too many cooks spoil the broth” is playing out in a Delhi court room with the culmination of a long-running culinary row over the origins of butter chicken.

The famous dish, made in a thick tomato-yoghurt sauce with butter and mild spices, has “inspired mystery novels, travelogues, and countless restaurant orders”, said the BBC. “But the comforting curry that people from around the world turn to as a familiar favourite has now become the subject of a messy court battle.”

Its origin story is at the heart of a “saucy real-life drama roiling India”, said The Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

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What is the claim?

The origins of butter chicken date back to before India’s independence, when Mokha Singh and two of his employees – Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi – ran a popular restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar, now in Pakistan. After partition in 1947, the restaurant reopened in Delhi, where, legend has it, butter chicken was invented.

Long attributed to Kundan Lal Gujral, chef and food writer Sadaf Hussain said the idea was born out of frugality, using leftover tikkas and mixing it in a thick tomato gravy and dollops of butter. 

Within a year Moti Mahal in Delhi had become a favourite of ministers and heads of state. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru dined there, as did Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Richard Nixon. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev used to fly Moti Mahal’s chefs and platters of chicken to Moscow for state banquets, said the WSJ. 

“Peace treaties were hammered out in the balcony. And M. Maulana Azad, the great Muslim leader, reportedly told the Shah of Iran that while in India he must make two visits – to the Taj Mahal and Moti Mahal,” said The New York Times (NYT) in 1984.

But the grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi, Raghav Jaggi, “tells a different story”, said the NYT this month: “that his own grandfather invented butter chicken by chance”. Once, when the kitchen was nearly out of stock, he created a sauce with “tomatoes, fresh butter and some spices” and then “mixed in pieces of cooked tandoori chicken”.

Both families now run rival chains and claim to be the true originators of the dish. Simmering tensions finally boiled over last month when the Gujral family filed a lawsuit against Daryaganj, run by the descendants of Kundan Lal Jaggi.

The Gujral family is seeking £188,968 in damages for copyright infringement and unfair competition. The owners of Daryaganj argue that, while Gujral was the face of the Moti Mahal restaurant, it was Jaggi who handled the kitchen and so the dishes, including butter chicken, were all his ideas.

Now a third Delhi restaurant, the original Moti Mahal, which was sold to another family in the 1990s but still operates under the name, has staked its own claim with the owners threatening a lawsuit of their own.

Does it matter?

It is “hard to prove that any single person came up with dishes that have become ubiquitous”, said the NYT, “but in the case of butter chicken, much is riding on the verdict – money, mostly, but also the legacy of the storied restaurant that the two men began building nearly eight decades ago, a span that covers almost all of India’s modern history as an independent nation”.

“The case has sparked amusement among foodies”, said the Financial Times (FT), yet “it is the latest twist in a wholly serious battle for commercial control of one of India’s most important exports: its world-famous food.” The most contentious of these dates back to the 1990s when Ricetec, a Texan company, secured a US patent for basmati, “triggering a dispute with New Delhi”, said the paper.

The story of butter chicken can also be “emotive”, said the FT, “evoking painful memories of the partition that followed British rule”. It is the story of modern India, in a dish.