Society

What If Kundan Lal Hadn't Hit Upon Butter Chicken?

Where would the poultry industry be without this wonder recipe? What would Pandit Nehru have served at state banquets, and what would Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi have demanded in their school tiffin boxes?

What If Kundan Lal Hadn't Hit Upon Butter Chicken?
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If a saw blade hadn't sliced the subcontinent in 1947, those delectable red birds that hang on skewerswouldn't have been bathed in rich butter-tomato gravy in dhabas, canteens and Punjabi-Mughali eateries. AndKundal Lal Gujral, who fled from Peshawar and set up Moti Mahal in Delhi’s Daryaganj wouldn't have gone downin post-partition culinary history as the brain behind murgh makhni.

Though the tandoor was part of the undivided heritage of ancient India, all that had gone into these hotearth ovens since the Indus Valley civilisation was pounded wheat. Flattened dough that was slapped againstits walls and left there to be heat-licked into warm, chewy doneness. And for centuries, it was chicken-thisor chicken-that, never something-chicken. It was Kundan Lal first stuck a bird in a clay oven, bathed it inbutter and turned the spiced bird/ fowl into a suffix.

What if Kundan Lal had never invented butter chicken? What would Pandit Nehru have served at statebanquets, and what would Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi have demanded in their school tiffin boxes? "There's novacuum in history, science and culture," says gastronome Pushpesh Pant. "If the apple hadn't fallenon Newton's head it would have fallen on another scientist; someone else would've put a chicken in the tandoor."

But would other cooks have had the bravado to go beyond the holy trio of onions, tomatoes and butter? Wouldthey have coaxed the chicken into flour-paste and created a tandoori-samosa? What if the orange meat had beenwrapped around khoya and rolled in pistachios and served as tiranga-murghi? What else would've eateries inIndia and the Sylheti cooks running UK's curry houses have trotted out, if, everybody hadn't been seduced bymurgh makhni?

Says veteran journalist Inder Malhotra, a regular at the restaurant with Feroze Gandhi: "Even thoughit was priced at Rs 5 in '49, we would eat a full chicken each, along with rotis and dal makhni." Itstill rules the roost. "Butter chicken or shahi paneer, which shares the same gravy, are still ordered atevery table," says Monish Gujral, grandson of Kundan Lal, who manages the Moti Mahal chain in India.

Surprisingly, few people speak of the ingenious thrift that lies behind the success of murgh makhni, apan-Indian pleasure of the flesh, now readily available in all world capitals. Double marination that ensuresquick roasting in a tandoor, the addition of butter which speeds up the sales of old stringy or dry birds andthe use of spices and colour which mask poor quality meat and conceal dust that coats tandoori-d chickens thatare sold in the open.

Where would the poultry industry be without this wonder recipe? "Its popularity has helped to drivethe prices of chicken down," says food expert Jiggs Kalra. He also clarifies his stand: "Butterchicken should be banned, only restaurants that can't conceive of anything original, plonk tandoori chickeninto gravy." He believes this low-common denominator Punjabi dish has stymied the chances of betterdishes like Lucknowi qormas.

Today, almost six decades after its invention, Robin Cook, former foreign secretary UK, had the temerity todeclare the chicken tikka masala, a derivative version of murgh makhni, as a national dish of Britain. Call itreverse colonisation if you like. But one thing is for sure, it's a cook from Peshawar, who crossed bordersand eventually got our former dividing and ruling empire by their taste buds.

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