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The beauty of butter chicken is in the sauce

Some weeks ago, I wrote about sushi.

It was so popular, I said, that it had become the new butter chicken. To which some readers responded: why, what’s wrong with the old butter chicken?


And sure enough, just as that column appeared, I was invited by Saransh Goila for a food tasting. You probably know Saransh. He’s found fame as being one of the best and the brightest of a new generation of TV chefs. But his latest ambition has nothing to do with television. He intends to open a chain of restaurants called Goila Butter Chicken all over India. The first one, in Andheri, should be opening around now.


   The centerpiece of Saransh’s menu is, as you may have guessed, his butter chicken. He serves it in many guises – in a biryani, in a bun, etc. – but it’s fair to say that if you don’t like the basic butter chicken, you probably won’t go to his restaurant.


   Because I like Saransh and did not want to disappoint him, I went to the tasting with some trepidation. I needn’t have worried. His butter chicken gravy was outstanding.


   I asked him where he’d got the recipe from and he said that it was his own adaptation of the traditional dish. He had grown up on the original, he explained and mentioned various restaurants in Rajendra Nagar and West Delhi that I have not had the pleasure of visiting.


   A week later, I went to the Delhi Pavilion, the coffee shop at ITC’s Sheraton New Delhi hotel. (Actually, I should amend that. We’re not supposed to call them coffee shops any longer. They are “all-day dining places”.) Though the restaurant serves the standard menu (hamburgers, sandwiches, etc.), its central conceit is that it recreates the cuisine of Delhi through the ages.


   If you are familiar with ITC’s record in the Indian food space, you will not be surprised to learn that the food is very good indeed. Who else but ITC could recreate the dishes served by the Delhi Sultanate, the Mughals, etc.?


   But there was one anomaly on the menu. The Delhi Pavilion serves butter chicken. Now, butter chicken is a classic Delhi dish having been popularized by Moti Mahal in Daryaganj in the 1950s. But because it is a dish associated with Hindu refugees from the Partition era, it does not necessarily fit the ‘from the Lodhis to the Mughals’ narrative.


   In fact, ITC has had a troubled relationship with butter chicken. They used to do an excellent version at Bukhara. Then, over a decade ago, the kitchen was told to stop making it. Bukhara is about kebabs, the chef was informed. There will be no curries on the menu. ITC’s haute cuisine restaurants, the Dum Pukhts, are run by chefs from the extended Quereshi clan, who base the menu on the cuisine of Avadh and have no time for such Punjabi dishes as butter chicken.


   So, ITC must be the only chain that is known for its Indian food but does not have a signature butter chicken.


   The balance has been righted at the Delhi Pavilion. I asked Chef Vipul, who cooks an excellent butter chicken, where his recipe came from. The answer seemed to be that they invented it in the Delhi Pavilion kitchens after sampling the various butter chickens on offer in the rest of Delhi. Because it will become a signature ITC dish, it needs a twist and Vipul has provided one. He uses desi tomatoes rather than the red ones we usually find in the market. It is the tomatoes that make the dish so distinct.


   It was funny to hear this new generation of chefs talk about butter chicken. Their recipes were complex and elaborate – a far cry from butter chicken’s humble and practical origins.


   In the 1920s, a man called Kundanlal Gujral, along with his partner, Mukha Singh, ran a dhaba at the back corner of Gora Bazar in Peshawar. They popularized tandoori chicken in their little corner of the world but faced a problem: what could they do with the chickens that went unsold?


   Gujral had the bright idea of making a curry in which the dried out chickens could be softened and served. He invented the butter chicken sauce that is the basis of the dish using tomatoes, butter and cream. The original recipe called for hardly any spices and required a little cumin, a spoonful of mirch, and salt to taste. The brilliance of the dish lay in the skillful combination of tomatoes and dairy fat. (Gujral was to repeat the same combination when he created the Dal Makhni, that is still served by every north Indian restaurant.)


   Post-Partition, Gujral came to Delhi, set up Moti Mahal and turned tandoori chicken into the most famous Indian dish in the world. He brought butter chicken with him from Peshawar and it went on to become the country’s most popular curry.


   I asked Mohnish Gujral, Kundanlal’s grandson, what he made of the butter chicken boom. I told him that when I tweeted a photo of Chef Vipul’s butter chicken, I got a torrent of replies. Everyone had his or her own butter chicken place and insisted that it was the best. Some people even claimed that it was a Hyderabadi dish and you could not get ‘real’ butter chicken outside of Hyderabad.


  Gujral is philosophical about the flight of the butter chicken. He accepts that most modern versions use ingredients that go far beyond Kundanlal’s original. Saransh’s version, for instance, uses kasuri methi. Most other restaurants use cashewnut paste to thicken the gravy. (I think everyone who goes to catering college in India spends one whole semester learning how to put kaju paste in everything.) Vipul sweetens the Delhi Pavilion butter chicken with a dash of honey. Less fancy places simply use sugar.


   Even within Moti Mahal, there is no one consistent recipe. After Kundanlal died, the original Moti Mahal in Daryaganj passed out of his family’s control. Another chain ran many restaurants under the name of Moti Mahal Deluxe without the involvement of Kundanlal’s family. Mohnish has reclaimed his ancestral legacy and now operates or franchises over a hundred Moti Mahals all over the world.


   For the ordinary tandoori chicken fan, this multiplicity of Moti Mahal chains, all owned by different people, can get quite confusing. I remember wandering into the original Moti Mahal over a decade ago and being appalled to see a Chinese section on the menu. What’s more confusing is that there is no standardization of recipes. One Moti Mahal might make its butter chicken in a completely different way from the other.


"Try these recipes and you will discover that you too can easily concoct your version of India’s most famous curry in the comfort of your own home."

   Within his own chain of Moti Mahals, however, Mohnish has tried to maintain consistency and sticks to his grandfather’s recipes. I asked him for the original butter chicken recipe and he was happy to part with it. Saransh took some persuading but eventually agreed to send it to me. Vipul did not have a choice in the matter: ITC does not give out its recipes.


   I’ve reproduced the original recipe, along with Saransh’s, on these pages to demonstrate how a simple dish acquires newer complexities as each generation creates its own version. The original butter chicken was made with leftover tandoori chicken but by the time Gujral opened Moti Mahal, he was using tandoori chicken that was only two-thirds cooked. This remains pretty much the standard for all versions of butter chicken everywhere.


   So, if you want to make butter chicken at home, don’t waste your time trying to make tandoori chicken in your kitchen. Buy it from outside and tell them to leave it a little uncooked. The beauty of the dish is the sauce. And as you will see, it’s not that difficult to make. Try these recipes and you will discover that you too can easily concoct your version of India’s most famous curry in the comfort of your own home.


Butter Gravy


2 tbsp. refined oil

15-16 medium red ripe juicy tomatoes

Salt 3 tsp. or to taste

1 tbsp. degi mirch

1 tbsp. cumin powder

2 tbsp. pasteurized yellow butter

½ cup fresh cream

(Seasoning should be adjusted depending upon the sweetness of the ripe tomatoes)


For Garnish


2 Green chili slit into 2

Chopped green coriander 1 tbsp.


   In a pan heat oil

   Chop tomatoes in a pan and sieve the chopped tomatoes through a fine sieve in a big container

   Once oil is hot add the tomato residue, just enough for one chicken and add all the spices

   Keep stirring over a medium flame till cooked and oil leaves sides

   Now in a heavy bottomed fry pan add the sauce with pre -cooked tandoori chicken and sauté on high flame for few minutes

   Add in the butter and stir till it is completely dissolved

   Stir in cream and remove in few seconds

   Serve hot garnished with green chili and chopped fresh coriander


Goila Butter Chicken




Tomato – 1 kg

Onion – 200 + 50 gms

Garlic – 30 + 20 gms

Cashewnut – 50 gms

Kasoori Methi – 2 Tbsp

Honey – 2 tsp.

Coriander Powder - 2 tsp.

Kashmiri chili powder – 1 tsp. + 1 ½ tsp.

Salt – to taste

Cinnamon – 2 pcs (1 inch stick)

Cardamom Green – 4 pcs.

Cloves - 4 pcs.

Butter – 75 gms + 25 gms

Water– ½ cup

Milk – 1 cup

Tandoori Chicken

Whole Chicken – ½ kg

Hung Curd – 75 gms

Mustard Oil – 30 ml

Ginger Garlic Paste – 50 gms

Kashmiri Red Chili Paste - 1 tablespoon

Elaichi Powder – a pinch

Kasoori methi – 2 tsp.

Salt – to taste




- Marinate the chicken with hung curd, mustard oil, ginger garlic paste, chilli paste, elaichi powder and salt. Keep this in the fridge overnight or if you’re short on time at least marinade for 2 hours!

- Roughly chop tomatoes, onion and garlic.

- Tie a small bag of muslin cloth with cinnamon, cloves and green cardamom.

- In a pressure cooker add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, cashewnut, honey, milk, water, coriander powder, kashmiri chilli powder, salt and muslin spice bag. Pressure-cook this for 25 mins. Reduce the flame to low after the first whistle.

- Open the lid and let it cool. Now grind the gravy in a mixie to a fine paste (if you like your butter chicken coarse grind accordingly).

- Make the first tadka by heating 75 gms of butter and sautéing onions and garlic in it. Once onions are white and garlic light brown add the Kashmiri chilli powder. Now add the silky gravy to this tadka. Let it simmer for 10 – 12 mins and the colour will change to a bright orange.

- Dry roast Kasoori methi in a pan, crush it with your palms and add it to the gravy.

- Roast the marinated chicken in tandoor. (If you don’t have one flash it in the oven for 12 -15 mins at 180 C). Shred it and discard the bones.

- Add this shredded tandoori chicken to the gravy. Simmer for 2-3 mins.

- Make the second tadka (coal tadka). Burn a piece of coal. Place a steel cup in the center of the gravy. Once the coal is lit; place it in the steel cup.

Splash leftover butter on the coal. Once it smokes immediately place a lid on the pan. Tightly cover it to trap the smoke. After 5 mins discard the coal and your Goila Butter Chicken is ready to serve.



  • Rajiv Lal Chaudhary 05 Jul 2016


  • Shirish 30 Jun 2016

    what you might want to do a piece on was how Saransh went about launching and promoting the b chicken
    the socmed blitz was amazing, nearly everyone had a pot of that chicken. food launches have now changed forever

  • Trish 30 Jun 2016

    I like the detailed description of Saransh's sauce and pleasantly discovered thats exactly how we make soup in winters (minus the elaborate spices)

    No wonder its easier to sub this with a can of campbells - just throw in the cashew and spices to it post that

Posted On: 25 Jun 2016 04:20 PM
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