In 1947, two men, both named Kundan, fled Peshawar during the bloody partition that carved Pakistan out of British India. They landed in Delhi and soon became partners in a restaurant called Moti Mahal serving food from the Punjab region.
On this much their descendants agree. Where they diverge is on the question of which of the men should go down in culinary history.
The two families both say that it was their own Kundan who invented butter chicken — the creamy, heavenly marriage of tandoori chicken and tomato gravy beloved everywhere north Indian food is served. And one of them has gone to court to try to prove it.
Before we dig in: Yes, it’s hard to prove that any single person came up with dishes that have become ubiquitous. Also, does it even matter after all these years? Being first doesn’t necessarily mean being best.
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 is laid out in a heaping 2,752-page document filed in Delhi High Court. In it, the family of Kundan Lal Gujral, who run Moti Mahal, claim that the descendants of Mr. Gujral’s business partner Kundan Lal Jaggi, who run an upstart rival chain, Daryaganj, have falsely asserted that butter chicken was Mr. Jaggi’s brainchild.
The lawsuit offers a pre-refrigeration-era sketch of how the dish came to be. Mr. Gujral, it says, “worried about what to do with the leftover tandoori chicken each night. It was his recipe to create a gravy with chopped tomatoes, cream, butter and spices, with sugar when the tomatoes were too sour for balancing flavors.”
Mr. Jaggi’s grandson, Raghav Jaggi, tells a different story: that his own grandfather invented butter chicken by chance.
In this version of events, it was late one day and the kitchen was nearly out of stock, save for a few pieces of tandoori chicken. Mr. Jaggi, his grandson said, was asked by a large group “to make a gravy and add tandoori chicken into it so that everyone could have a hearty meal.”
Scratching together what he could, he created, in this recounting, a gravy with tomatoes, fresh butter and some spices. He then mixed in pieces of cooked tandoori chicken — which is why recipes still used today call for chicken to be put first in the tandoor and then added to the makhani, or butter, gravy as it simmers.
Mr. Gujral’s family isn’t buying it. “It is not possible to create the butter chicken gravy ‘on the spot,’” their lawsuit argues.
Monish Gujral, the grandson of Mr. Gujral, said the family was seeking an injunction against Mr. Jaggi’s chain, which was founded in 2019, and damages of about $240,000 for copyright infringement and unfair competition. The case also includes another creamy concoction, dal makhani, a dish with black lentils.
“It’s recorded history that my grandfather invented the tandoori chicken, butter chicken and dal makhani,” Monish Gujral said at his restaurant in south Delhi. “For so many years there have been recorded awards and interviews with my grandfather where the Jaggi family was also present. Why did they not take credit or say they also deserved credit?”
In its first incarnation, Moti Mahal was a large, open‐air dining spot in Old Delhi where guests could go into the primitive kitchen and watch the food being cooked. Shopkeepers around the current restaurant, in south Delhi, still reminisce about the original place.
The restaurant took a ground-floor space in a high-end market in the 1970s. It recently moved a floor higher; guests who come looking for it at the old address are pointed upward.
Diners are greeted by a poster of the elder Mr. Gujral that identifies him as the inventor of tandoori chicken, butter chicken and dal makhani. Inside are portraits of him with Indian prime ministers, politicians and Bollywood stars.
Many guests come looking for the same taste they have enjoyed for decades, even if the tandoori chicken is now cooked in steel ovens run on gas, and not the coal-fired clay ovens that the government has banned to cut down on pollution. (When this correspondent popped in the other day for some interviews and — strictly for reporting purposes — a taste test, a municipal inspector argued his way in to check whether the gas one was indeed being used.)
One diner, Raksha Bahl, 80, ordered butter chicken with fluffy naan. It was her wedding anniversary, and she was out celebrating with her son, having lost her husband years ago. Her husband would drive her many miles from a neighboring state to celebrate business successes at the original Moti Mahal in Old Delhi.
She said she missed the smoky taste of chicken from the coal-fired ovens, and complained that, on this night, there was a tad too much salt in the gravy, which the manager dutifully replaced.
“For Punjabis, butter chicken is comfort food, and I think Moti Mahal is the best,” said her son, Pawan.
Mr. Jaggi, the owner of the rival chain, Daryaganj, said he had started his business soon after his grandfather died in 2018 to “celebrate the resilience and success of the Hindu Punjabi refugees that fled Peshawar and came to Delhi as their new home.”
Daryaganj is a stark contrast in vibe and ambience, plush and modern, though it similarly advertises itself with the tagline “By the inventors of butter chicken & dal makhani” and displays portraits of luminaries served by the elder Mr. Jaggi.
Over the weekend, there was a long line as Indians and foreigners waited for a table at an outlet in an upmarket mall near the Delhi airport.
It offers two kinds of butter chicken — the “Original 1947 Butter Chicken, Secret Recipe of 1947” and “Today’s Butter Chicken.” The gravy of the original has a coarser texture, evoking a time before modern kitchen appliances, while the newer dish has a silkier, richer gravy.
Mishika Verma, a 22-year-old advertising professional, said she preferred the original version. “Frankly, I like this butter chicken better than Moti Mahal because it’s more real,” she said. “What you get elsewhere is too creamy and heavy.”
What she didn’t care about was who created the dish.
“The claim may be really important to them personally,” she said. “I can understand.”
But in the end, “I have come here for the taste.”