In Search of Lost Butter Chicken

A writer looks high and low across the globe for the perfect iteration of the Punjabi classic, hoping to relive memories of her beloved grandparent.  
butter chicken
Butter chicken’s origin story can be famously traced back to Moti Mahal in Daryaganj. Photo by Ramon Grosso Dolarea/Shutterstock.

Soon after the Indo-Pak Partition, a young Punjabi Hindu man from Peshawar sought refuge on the other side of the border. In the Daryaganj locality of Delhi, Kundan Lal Gujral opened Moti Mahal, a restaurant that had been a popular eatery in his hometown. As the story goes, he conducted an experiment to save leftover pieces of dried tandoori chicken by cooking them in a creamy tomato gravy. And with this, the provenance of butter chicken or murgh makhani became a delicious episode in India’s culinary history.

Around the same time, another young man left his home in Satara, Maharashtra, to make the journey to Bombay. For him too, it was a time of experimentation. With the freedom of travel that an engineering degree accorded him, came a delectable curiosity for food beyond the realm of the vegetarian diet on which he had been raised. The headiness of city life held sway over him as he sallied forth into a world full of crustaceans, birds and animals to be discovered. Fish and shrimps were consumed with equal fervour as chicken and mutton.

Later this man, my grandfather, married a girl named Sindhu, the only one who would cling to her steadfast commitment to vegetarianism to the end, even as one child after another inherited her husband’s carnivorous habits. It wasn’t until the 1980s that my grandfather chanced upon his true gastronomic love—butter chicken—and passed it down generations.

He bore a fine personality, my grandfather: perfectly-dyed black hair, a loud voice behoving the raconteur that he was and the magician that he was. He adored his daily peg of whisky like he adored his food. For me on the other hand, mealtime was at best a chore that needed to be done away with. I was often the one idling away at the dining table long after everyone else had lapped up the last remnants of food from their fingers and dispersed.

Sukhada's family

The family had many a memorable meal savouring butter chicken at Niagara restaurant in Mumbai.
Photo Courtesy: Sukhada Tatke

At its best, however, mealtime was a plate simmering with luscious pieces of grilled meat, immersed in tangy gravy slathered with a big-hearted layer of butter. Show me a person hostile to this humble dish, butter chicken—with its self-awareness of being the purveyor of delight—and I will show you a life perfunctorily lived.

It is rare for a gathering of 11 to agree upon a restaurant, leave alone the type of food. And yet, “Niagara!” is what we would all yell in unison at the mention of a family dinner outing. This restaurant right outside my colony in Khar, Bombay, had come a long way since it started in the mid-1950s as a modest Udipi joint. In its latest avatar, familiar to my generation, it was a bar-meets-south Indian-meets-north Indian-meets-Chinese cuisine.

What then was its identity, its raison d’être, you ask? My family had the answer. Why this little-known restaurant was named after the waterfalls along the distant border between the U.S. and Canada, nobody knew. Everyone knew, however, that Niagara was synonymous with butter chicken.

How we vowed on several occasions during our five-minute walk to the restaurant not to fall for its unbearable charm, to give other keen competitors a chance. But the menu would immediately elicit a Pavlovian response, leaving us salivating for what we knew best, our bravado fully dissipated. It was mostly around the quiet glow of this restaurant that this bright orange north Indian wonder bore silent witness to our Maharashtrian family’s various mile-stones: birthdays, anniversaries, academic and sporting achieve-ments; no moment was too big or too small to merit a celebration complete with butter chicken, roti and jeera rice.

At other times, we would phone in our order. So familiar was our fierce loyalty to anyone who answered the phone, that all we had to do was give our flat number to be asked: “Kitna butter chicken?” The whiff of the air, a few minutes later, brought with it the eagerly awaited fragrance, preceded by the transporter of our order on his bicycle.

Our allegiance to butter chicken remained constant even as things around our axes rapidly changed: Bombay became Mumbai. International food and cafés became de rigueur. Bandra emerged as the nouveau cool. A walking stick appeared in my grandfather’s hand. And yet, the quality of our butter chicken weathered the seasons; a gradual increase in rates the only thing that signalled the passage in time.

plate of butter chicken

No moment was too big or too small for the author’s family to merit a celebration complete with butter chicken, roti and jeera rice. Photo by StudioAHA/iStock.

When Niagara shut somewhere in the early 2000s after its five decade-long run, everyone grieved. We realised, as one does only after the death of a beloved, how widely treasured our butter chicken was outside of our family; that it had never been only ours to claim, that its life had been for collective celebration and, that its demise was for all to mourn.

If Niagara couldn’t hold its own in the new millennium, neither could its biggest patron. When my grandfather died in 2008, my butter chicken consumption took a hit. Inadvertently, I took it upon myself to reconnect with him through his favoured dish.

Much like Vikram Seth’s hero Michael in An Equal Music looking for the lemon perfume of the woman he loved, I too have since been casting around for the smell of my childhood everywhere my feet have travelled.

When I moved to Houston in Texas more than two years ago, I was assured that Indian food would be found in abundance. And found it was for the Texan city didn’t disappoint. I gobbled up everything my heart craved: vada pav, dabeli, even chowpatty chaat.

There is no end in sight for my quest for butter chicken.

Restaurant after restaurant, I have left exasperated. “Try chicken tikka masala, no,” suggested a friend once. “Have you tried the British pub close to your place?” asked another. For any self-respecting butter chicken lover insistent on authenticity, these trivial derivatives of the original version offer no comfort.

In restaurants outside of India, offenders come in different shades and shapes; the pale yellow curry with chewy pieces of chunky chicken masquerading as the real McCoy takes the offence to another level: repugnance. Familiar Bollywood music and the Indian decor in these eating spaces provide little solace.

Moti Mahal, Daryaganj

Moti Mahal in Daryaganj was once patronised by the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and John F. Kennedy and is where butter chicken was given birth. ©Ruby/Alamy/indiapicture

Once I was in Germany for a month; the editor of the newspaper where I worked gave me a dream assignment. Go to five Indian restaurants, he said, order the same dish everywhere and grade the restaurants. At this point, it’s perhaps amply clear what I chose and how each adaptation of butter chicken kept falling lower on the scale of glory.

Another time during a long stay in France, when the country was transitioning from an unsympathetic winter to gorgeous spring, a brutal craving struck me and took the form of a cri de coeur on Facebook. My best friend’s fiancé, a top chef in Abu Dhabi, whom I had never met until then responded from afar. “It’s easy,” he said, and kindly shared a recipe. It was anything but easy; I had neither the ingredients nor the acumen (although at a later occasion I did try, and failed miserably), but the chef scored instant brownie points in my mind.

My second best option then was to convince a French friend, who went out only on weekends, to join me on my hunt in the middle of the week. He agreed to try out his first Indian meal and we ended up at Le Maharajah. I should’ve known better than to trust a desi name prefixed by an article à la Française. The elusive taste continued to abscond and I left more than mildly incensed.

How to find the perfect recipe when the secret and most potent ingredients are but memories of perfection? How can something physical match the ideal when the deep orange of the butter chicken of my childhood was more than a thing to be eaten, but an image of a splendid sunset on a cloudless day?

These days, my husband is on a vitalised chase on my behalf. “We haven’t been to (insert Indian restaurant name) yet,” he says. On a recent such visit in Houston, as I sank my teeth into a succulent piece of chicken, he asked earnestly: “And?” My answer would disappoint him yet again, but the truth had to be told. “It’s butter chicken, alright, but not quite.”

Proust’s narrator in In Search of Lost Time feels an “all-powerful joy” when a madeleine dipped in tea touches his palate and transports him to Sundays of a bygone era spent at his aunt Léonie’s. The narrator sums up this unfathomable experience thus: “When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead…the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time.”

Whether or not I will eventually attain my madeleine moment and get propelled into a world in which lived my grandfather, butter chicken with him will be at the forefront of my happiest memories.

Am I ready then to relinquish my search? Not quite.

In between these moments of yearning and probable fruition, I will draw inspiration from the young man from Satara and his eager experiments with food.

  • Sukhada Tatke is a Mumbai-bred, Houston-based writer. She tweets as @ASuitableGirl.

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