Whose Butter Chicken is it anyway?
Butter Chicken has been in the news ever since sections of Indian and foreign media reported a legal spat between two claimants of its invention. Many food historians and butter chicken aficionados waded into the troubled curry, some smelling a gravy train in the event of the court calling for witnesses or expert opinion. But for someone like me, who as per his own confession is not a chicken lover, the entire episode is picking bones out of tomato puree.
Butter Chicken is overrated. Meat uplifts the character of a preparation through a combination of its own juices and by imbibing the flavours of the ingredients. Adding meat simply for its texture or to provide protein mass to the mix is a waste. If that is the intention one might as well dump sponge balls into a thick gravy a la "Veg Manchurian". Even paneer does a better job because it at least allows some of the seasoning to seep into it. Therefore, any good meat preparation cannot be made without hours of martination and then cooking it in the masala before finishing it. In Butter Chicken the meat and the sauce never quite meld. One could as well pour ketchup and cream over boiled pieces of chicken with some Tabasco or Sriracha to get a similar effect. To say the Britishers have made it iconic means trifle little because they don't understand food.
The best Chicken Curries according to me are thin. Keeping aside the divine Bengali “Murgir Jhol” and its other Eastern India cousins made with a light touch of turmeric and red chillies - my favourite is the Malvani Kombdi Rassa. The medley of Konkani spices and coconut onion paste makes it distinctive. Further up the North East, I love the use of black sesame which acts with the chicken’s (usually unskinned) own fat to create magic. Down South I find the dry chicken preparations - such as the Pepper Fry - interesting as it captures the essence of black pepper corns and Kari leaves into the meat.
But, undoubtedly, the prize for some of the most outstanding Chicken Dishes have to go to the Muslim Chefs of both the Mughal and later the Awadhi kitchens. The Korma is probably the most complex Chicken preparation that meets every criterion of gourmet cooking. This is the only instance where I prefer Chicken over Mutton and am even willing to make a concession for Broiler or Poultry Chicken over Country or Free Range birds. In the perfect Korma the gravy and the chicken retain their separate distinct characteristics even after cooking and burst in the mouth when mopped up with a piece of tandoori roti.
For a Hindu variant of the Korma I go to my old haunt National Restaurant in Connaught Place. Though the adjoining Kake and Bhape Da Hotel have become more popular among the touristy crowd - National, in my book, still serves the authentic Korma which they prefer to call Curry. My advice would be to go for a breast piece (anyday better than the leg in a curry) with just Tandoori and the onion salad on the side.
Many love the Safed or White Korma - a specialty of Rajasthan. The Safed Korma at the Muhammadi Palace in Chandpole and now the MM Khan Hotel on Amer Road. But does not quite open the flood gates of saliva for me. I have tried cooking it with the Shan-E-Jaipur White Korma Masala adding my own spin to make it more spicy. It is nice for a change but not something that I would make regular on my table. The Kolkata Rezala - actually invented for Mutton using the fatty ribs pieces - works well with Chicken if one is looking for a more conscience friendly option - but not the real stuff.
Coming back to CBM (Chicken Butter Masala) - the Kolkata Butter Chicken is very different from the Moti Mahal version. It does not use tomatoes at all. I am not sure if the reason for that was economic - because tomatoes were not as common in the East as it was in the North. I shall check with the Ghais of Kwality’s for some lead.
But, what is Butter Chicken after all? Can there be any authentic recipe for something that has become so universally generic? The franchisees of Moti Mahal that have mushroomed all across the country and even around the world (many of them clones) all serve assembly line stuff. While the different branches of Moti Mahal keep feuding in court - to my mind - the best Butter Chicken in Delhi can be had at Gulati’s or Havmor on Pandara Road.
In my judgement Butter Chicken is not a dish. It is a state of mind of Punjabis and those who are Punjabi By Nature (PBN). Probably, the late Kindan Lal Gujaral also knew the ultimate fate of the controversial legacy he was to leave behind. As one of first person account of the legend goes, he used to frequent the Tees Hazari Court close to his restaurant apparently without any reason, and at every opportunity touched the feet of the young lady Sub Divisional Magistrate as if to atone for his sin of inflicting this major culinary scam on generations to come.