The Debated Origins Of Butter Chicken Could Be Settled In A Fiery Court Case

The origins of any one food are often hard to pin down and up for debate, and things can get dicey when a dish is as popular as butter chicken. The Indian classic, which is also sometimes labeled chicken makhani after the Hindi word for butter, is an internationally known favorite that pairs marinated chicken with a creamy sauce of tomatoes, butter, and spices. Sometimes confused with another popular dish, chicken tikka masala, it's a sweeter recipe that uses different spices, and it was actually invented in India, unlike tikka masala which originated in the United Kingdom. This last fact is particularly relevant to a recent court case, as butter chicken has become a beloved symbol of Indian cuisine to the rest of the world.

Moti Mahal, a restaurant in Delhi, is behind the new lawsuit over butter chicken's creation. The local institution has served Indian Prime Ministers and U.S. Presidents, and the company asserts that the restaurant's founder Kundan Lal Gujral, created the dish back in the 1930s before moving to Delhi. However, a different chain called Daryaganj is also now claiming to have invented butter chicken, saying that a family member of the owners co-created the dish with Gujral when he was working at Moti Mahal back in 1947. As a result, the owners of Moti Mahal are suing the owners of Daryaganj over what they consider a false claim, and seeking damages to the tune of $240,000.

Butter chicken dates back over 75 years to post-partition India

Moti Mahal claims Kundan Lal Gujral actually invented butter chicken in Peshawar, now in Pakistan. In 1947 what had been British-ruled India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, which led to a flood of religious refugees moving between the new Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority nations. Gujral is believed to have flown to Delhi during this time and quickly opened Moti Mahal with two partners, one of whom was Kundan Lal Jaggi. Butter chicken evolved from another traditional Indian dish, tandoori chicken, as a way to use up leftovers in an era where a lack of refrigeration meant cooked food would otherwise go to waste. While Moti Mahal claims butter chicken predated the restaurant, Jaggi's descendant, Raghav Jaggi, claims Gujral was merely the maître d' welcoming guests while his relative was the actual chef, and thus responsible for the creation.

The dish was a massive hit in India, and it was carried all over the globe by the Indian diaspora, as people migrated and opened restaurants. The court case is going to be difficult to prove either way, as it happened so long ago that direct testimony and evidence will be hard to come by. But it shows the pride and stakes that can be tied to the creation of a dish, and it's likely that no matter who the courts find in favor, the debate will never die.