The Competing Origin Stories Of Butter Chicken

The legend of butter chicken is a tale of two chefs, each with the same first name, but different surnames. Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi are each said to have invented the creamy, tomato-forward curry with chunks of smoky tandoori chicken. The two were colleagues and perhaps even friends, though the relationship between their descendants is far from chummy.

The families of both chefs swear that their respective grandfathers invented the iconic dish, and the Gujral family has even filed a lawsuit against the Jaggis' restaurant over the subject. At the time of writing, the court case is ongoing, and a definitive conclusion is unlikely. Identifying the unquestionable creator of a dish can be impossible, as such origins are rarely well-documented and have to be pieced together using rough timelines and word-of-mouth tales that might be liberal with the truth. 

Butter chicken isn't ancient, but is old enough to have contentious roots, dating back to 1947. That year, the colonizer Britain split India in a move known as Partition, causing chaotic mass migration and violence as many Muslims fled to the new Islamic state of Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs fled to modern-day India. Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi moved to New Delhi from Peshawar in Pakistan, and established the restaurant Moti Mahal. Perhaps they came up with butter chicken together, but their families don't entertain the idea. "You cannot take away somebody's legacy," Monish Gujral, grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral, warns his legal opponents (via Reuters).

The Gujral version of events

While the Gujrals and Jaggis agree that butter chicken was first served in New Delhi's Moti Mahal restaurant, they disagree on when and where it was actually invented. The Gujral family states that Kundan Lal Gujral invented it in 1920 at an older restaurant, also called Moti Mahal, back home in Peshawar. He supposedly came up with the dish as a way to repurpose leftover tandoori chicken. By serving it in a rich gravy, he could revive the older, dried-out pieces of meat.

Some Peshawar residents do remember a certain Kundan Lal making butter chicken there, but his surname is not specified (via NPR). To make matters more confusing, both Kundan Lals worked at another restaurant in town run by a man named Mukhi Singh. A nonexistent figure with a blend of both names — Kundan Lal Singh — has also been credited by folks from Peshawar as the inventor of the dish.

The Gujrals also claim that their Kundan Lal invented creamy dal makhani and tandoori chicken. Though the technique of cooking marinated chicken in a hot clay oven called a tandoor can be traced back several thousands of years, Gujral is widely credited with popularizing the modern version we enjoy today. Though the original restaurant was sold off in the 1990s, the Moti Mahal name has become a booming chain franchise, with around 90 locations across Asia and beyond.

The Jaggi version of events

The Jaggi side of the family say that their Kundan Lal invented butter chicken at the Moti Mahal location in New Delhi, to satisfy a late-night rush of customers. With not much left in the kitchen, he combined tandoori chicken and a tomato gravy to make enough food to feed the unexpectedly large group of patrons.

In 2019, Raghav Jaggi, grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi, founded the restaurant chain Daryaganj — named for the neighborhood where the first Moti Mahal was opened — in honor of his recently-deceased grandfather. The restaurant also claims that its elder Jaggi was the inventor of both butter chicken and dal makhani, advertising itself with the tagline "By The Inventors Of Butter Chicken." The Daryaganj menu credits the owner of the very first Moti Mahal, back in Peshawar, as the inventor of tandoori chicken, and makes no mention of Gujral. 

The Gujrals didn't file their aforementioned lawsuit until Raghav Jaggi went on TV and claimed that the true inventor of butter chicken was in his own lineage. He did so in an appearance on Indian Shark Tank, while advocating for his restaurant to the show's wealthy investors. In the whopping 2,752-page court document, the Gujrals also seek damages for similarities between their restaurants' website and "look and feel" versus that of the Daryaganj chain.

What is butter chicken?

The world may never know the full story of butter chicken, as both Kundan Lals have passed away, leaving their descendants to duke it out. What everyone can agree on is that the dish is delicious. Butter chicken — also known as murgh makhani — has become a beloved mainstay across India and the whole world. There are many versions of the makhani sauce, but most use a paste of warm spices, red chili powder, onions, garlic, and ginger to impart a deep flavor into the meat. 

In this dish, a yogurt marinade is the secret to extra juicy chicken, and cooking it at high heat in a tandoor imparts a charred flavor, while keeping the inside moist and tender. Some recipes for the sauce only use butter for creaminess, while others use blended cashews. Daryaganj makes its "Original 1947 Butter Chicken" with butter only, but adds cream to their more modern "Today's Butter Chicken." 

Meanwhile, the Moti Mahal franchise menu doesn't specify what goes into its butter chicken, and the original New Delhi-based Moti Mahal (which is not affiliated with either family) states that it uses "butter cream" in its sauce. Whatever version you're enjoying, eating with your hands in India is the norm, so grab some fluffy garlic-cilantro naan to soak up all of the creamy sauce and scoop up the pieces of perfectly tender chicken. For a dish with such contested origins, it sure has a crowd-pleasing flavor.