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Which Came First?

An example of the classic "butter chicken."
Photo by Joe mon bkk, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
An example of the classic "butter chicken."

A new food fight has erupted in India.
And it’s about one of the most famous dishes to come out of India, one that every other Indian restaurant in the west usually must carry.
Everyone knows butter chicken. Chunks of marinaded smoky spicy chicken cooked in a sauce of tomato, cream and of course lots of butter.

RB1: If you want to do a fresh chicken tikka do a fresh chicken tikka and put it in. But classically butter chicken was always a way of recycling.

It’s yummy but now its giving some Indians indigestion. Two restaurants in New Delhi are both claiming their forefathers invented the authentic butter chicken.
The owner of Moti Mahal restaurant says their forefather Kundan Lal Gujral came up with because he was worried what to do with leftover tandoori chicken.
Monish Gujral, Moti Mahal’s managing director told Reuters they have to defend their legacy.

MG1: We will not allow anybody to take out take away our legacy. We will not allow anybody to take out take away our legacy.

Moti Mahal is suing Dariyaganj restaurant, a newer kid on the block, saying its trying to steal the credit and the filing is 2700 pages long. Daryaganj’s CEO and cofounder Amit Bagga wont cry chicken either.
He is not denying that Moti Mahal is where it all began.

AB1: Butter chicken and dal makhani are dishes which were invented in a restaurant called Moti Mahal, and this Moti Mahal restaurant was founded by three partners, and Mr. Kundan Lal Jaggi was one of the co-founders of that restaurant. And that is why we use this name.

The thing is Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundal Lal Jaggi were originally partners at Moti Mahal. Both had fled to Delhi from Peshawar in Pakistan during Partition of the country in 1947 and started Moti Mahal to serve the food from the Punjab they had left behind. Butter chicken was born in tragedy though it is now being cooked in farce as both sides battle over authenticity.
When it comes to food origins too many cooks can spoil the broth.
In fact this endless quest for authenticity itself is itself a bit of a red herring. Because its like chasing a mirage.
Every home has its own authentic way of preparing beloved local dishes. Krish Ashok is a very popular writer who talks about the science of food. In his book Masala Lab he says only completely fraudulent people swear by authenticity when it comes to food.
For example the South Indian sambar is a dal with vegetables. It's served in every south indian home and restaurant. And typically has all kinds of veggies like diced potatoes, carrots, green beans, None of them are indigenous says Ashok

KA1: in South India, the, uh, carrots, cabbage, uh, and beans, French beans and all used to be called English, which they still village people, you ask them, they called English vegetables because they used to be sold to the English people when when they were here

His grandmother grew up with sambar that didnt have those English vegetables but happily incorporated both into her sambar when she moved to the big city of Chennai or Madras from her village. She didnt worry about authenticity.
All this to say food is constantly evolving. The border between Texas and Mexico might be a political hot potato but it has not stopped food tastes from commingling, to create Tex-Mex, which remains hugely popular, though its authentically neither Texan nor Mexican.
The dish of pav bhaji which has spicy vegetable curry with a soft bun is famously Indian yet says Ashiok none of its ingredients are authentically Indian.

KA2: The, the, the pao is Portuguese, the, the, the potato is of South American in origin. The capsicum, chilies and tomatoes came from Mexico, all of these introduced by the Portuguese, the cabbage, cauliflower, carrot, all of these were brought by the Europeans and so on

It’s just the way its all put together and spiced that makes it Indian.

KA3: We indianize things, the ingredients don't matter. You can give us anything you want. We will borrow left and right. We will borrow cooking, but we will indianize it

The court has been asked to decide who owns the right to Butter chicken but for most of us eating it doesn’t matter who invented it. We just care about who cooks it better right now.
And that to be honest might be neither Moti Mahail nor Daryaganj but some hole in the wall restaurant in San Francisco’s tenderloin.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW