Feedback form

Share Your Thoughts

India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont

The accidental Butter Chicken

Butter Chicken has tickled many a palate for its finger-licking goodness, gaining cult status among foodies worldwide. Not bad for an accidental dish cobbled together to avoid food waste! It feels like a recipe destined for success–it literally has butter in its name–and we all know anything with gobs of butter is bound to be incredibly tasty. From your roadside dhabas to high-end restaurants, tandoori chicken and butter chicken are synonymous with Indian food. 

Legend has it that both were the discoveries of one man, chef Kundan Lal Gujral.

The mystery of history

There are several stories and claims about the invention of murgh makhani, aka Butter Chicken, all very interesting. 

A black and white photo of Kundan Lal Gujral, smiling. Image credit: 
 ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Kundan Lal Gujral. Image credit: ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The first version has the dish originating in pre-partition Peshawar (now in Pakistan). Young Kundan Lal Gujral worked in a sweet shop there called Mukhey da Dhaba, owned by an elderly Mokha Singh Lamba. Working alongside other chefs, Gujral helped develop a dish called tandoori chicken, where he skewered marinated chicken and stuck them into a tandoor, which was usually reserved to make naan. It was a big hit with their patrons. 

A few years later, Mokha Singh’s health deteriorated, and he sold his restaurant to Kundan Lal Gujral, who was not just an astute chef, but also had a keen business mind. When making tandoori chicken, the chicken is shaped into cylindrical patties (seekhs) that hang above a tandoor to be grilled to perfection. However, if left unsold and hanging all day, they would dry out. In order to re-moisten them, Gujral came up with a genius sauce made with tomatoes, butter, cream, spices, and viola, that was the birth of the famous Butter Chicken!

After India’s independence in 1947, Gujral migrated to Delhi with his family, and opened a roadside dhaba in the Daryaganj neighborhood, with two partners, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Das. It was called Moti Mahal. Here, he and his partners also came up with an above-ground, restaurant-style tandoor where they cooked their yogurt-marinated (tandoori) chicken. In the 1950s there was no refrigeration to store unsold leftovers. So Gujral used his idea from his Peshawar days and added dried chunks of chicken to his spiced tomato-butter gravy.

Who was in the kitchen?

Black and white image of Kundan Lal Jaggi. Image credit: ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Kundan Lal Jaggi. Image credit: ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Now the story takes an interesting turn. In version two, according to Raghav Jaggi (descendant of one partner, Kundan Lal Jaggi), it wasn’t Kundal Lal Gujral who came up with the recipe, but his namesake Kundan Lal Jaggi. Gujral, he says, was a businessman, a great host. His strength was front-end management at Moti Mahal, while Jaggi was in charge of the kitchen.

Jaggi came up with the recipe for butter chicken when a large group of refugees came to the restaurant and he didn’t have enough tandoori chicken to feed them all. So he improvised and whipped up a butter, spice, and tomato gravy, adding tandoori chicken pieces to it, making it more substantive and gravy-like, to be dipped in and scooped up with naan, much like we do today.

Today Moti Mahal is a global brand, under the stewardship of Monish Gujral (grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral) with restaurants that dot the globe. No visit to Delhi, they say, is complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal and a pit stop at Moti Mahal for their butter chicken.

Raghav Jaggi, the grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi owns the popular Daryaganj restaurant, with the same quality of food that was served at the original establishment but in a more contemporary setting. 

Version three is a bit out there, as I think the British do tend to claim all things Indian as their own. According to this version, In the 1970s, Britain’s famous tandoori chicken was on the menu at a restaurant in Glasgow. A customer complained that the meat was too dry, so the chef added some tomato soup to the dry tandoori chicken to add some creaminess to it. 

Innovation brings out unique flavors

No matter which version you choose to believe, the allure of this yummy orange dish beckons with its tangy, velvety goodness. Ayurveda considers butter to be a natural coolant, balancing out the spiciness of the marinated chicken. According to Ayurveda, butter is used as a dietary ingredient in conditions like indigestion and pitta imbalance, calming vata, and pitta doshas. Meat meant for these doshas needs to be cooked with plenty of butter and ghee.

A photo of chicken curry in a black dish, at Saffron in Burlingame and San Carlos. The dish is surrounded by three small white cups with various condiments. Photo courtesy: Saffron
Butter Chicken at Saffron (Burlingame, San Carlos) Photo courtesy: Saffron

 “When I started in the business, every restaurant offered Chicken Tikka Masala, which is a British invention,” says Ajay Walia, chef, and owner of Saffron in San Carlos and Burlingame. “Butter chicken was not popular at that time, and few restaurants served it. Since I didn’t understand what Chicken Tikka Masala was, I went with what I knew: Butter Chicken. Now, Butter Chicken is commonly found on restaurant menus and has become more popular than Chicken Tikka Masala. It’s a comforting and delicious dish that has become synonymous with Indian food.”

Traditionally, making butter chicken involved frying chunks of boneless meat marinated in yogurt until browned. Then onions, a blend of spices along with tomatoes, and cream would be simmered until thickened.

“At Rooh we modified the traditional Butter Chicken recipe with locally sourced fresh heirloom tomatoes, which are sweeter than Indian tomatoes,” explains Chef De Cuisine Pujan Sarkar of Rooh, San Francisco. 

“We also add blended, roasted red bell peppers to give things a smoky flavor, intriguing our guests’ taste buds and palate. Our Butter Chicken has the same smoky flavor and a smooth texture, but with a slightly milder taste than what we get in Delhi or dhabas in North India,” he said. 

Butter Chicken time!

By now, you are probably craving some Butter Chicken! So Chef Pujan Sarkar of Rooh is obliged to share his version here:

Portion: 4
Prep Time: 60 min
Cook time: 45 min
Difficulty Level:  Medium

Chicken Tikka


  • Chicken boneless leg 250 gm
  • Garlic and ginger paste 20 gm
  • Lemon juice of 1 lemon
  • Mustard oil 30 ml
  • Salt 5 gm
  • Hung curd 50 gm
  • Degi mirch powder (chili powder) 5 gm
  • Home garam masala powder 5 gm
  • Chopped coriander 5 gm
  • Roasted cumin powder 3 gm
  • Kasoori Methi (dry fenugreek leaves) powder 3 gm 


  1. Marinate the chicken in ginger and garlic paste, lemon juice, mustard oil, salt and hung curd, degi mirch powder, turmeric, garam masala powder, chopped coriander and cumin powder. 
  2. Keep in the cooler for at least  3 hrs or overnight for best results . 
  3. Put the chicken pieces on the skewer for tandoor (Indian clay oven ) and cook in the tandoor for 15 minutes or until done. 

Red Pepper Makhani


  • Tomato fresh 250 gm
  • Tomato puree 50 gm
  • Chopped onion 15 gm
  • Roasted red pepper 100 gm
  • Ginger-garlic paste 15 gm
  • Broken cashews 20 gm
  • Kasoori Methi 5 gm
  • Butter 20 gm
  • Canola Oil 10 ml
  • Tomato paste 10 gm
  • Degi Mirch Powder 5 gm
  • Turmeric powder 5 gm
  • Cardamom powder 2 gm
  • Honey 5 gm
  • Salt 5 gm or to taste
  • Double cream 150 gm


  1. Heat butter and oil, add ginger-garlic paste,  chopped onion,  cook for a while then add tomato paste, degi mirch powder, turmeric powder 
  2. Add chopped pieces of roasted red pepper, tomato, and broken cashew
  3. Add kasoori methi, salt, and cardamom  powder
  4. Cook till all the flavors have been incorporated, add little water 
  5. Add cream and honey, cook for 2-4 minutes on a low-medium heat
  6. Run over with hand blender to get the correct consistency
  7. Add more cream and Kasoori Methi, adjust seasoning, blend the gravy once again to ensure smooth consistency 
  8. Then add the tandoori chicken in the red pepper makhani gravy and cook in the gravy till warm, garnish with coriander cress, butter powder and drizzle with curry oil and serve. 

For garnish

  • Cilantro Cress
  • Curry Oil
  • Butter Powder (optional)
Avatar photo

Mona Shah

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter and LinkedIn for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor,...