July 22, 2024

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Butter Chicken Case Highlights Delhi's History As India's Culinary Capital

The fight over butter chicken resonates because food is an identity in Delhi

In the dog-eared cookbook of India’s culinary delights, the section for Delhi is uniquely beloved. From crisp, gooey sweets like jalebi to the tangy flavor of lamb pulao, the city is built around enjoying, sharing, defending – and bickering over food.

Lately, those passions have fixed on a single question: Can you trademark the world’s most famous recipes?

For weeks, two popular establishments serving butter chicken, perhaps the most Delhi of Delhi’s dishes, have been in court seeking clarity on the matter. The plaintiff, an old-school restaurant chain called Moti Mahal Delux, has argued in 2,752 pages that its founder was the original inventor of butter chicken and therefore anybody who says otherwise is guilty of infringement. The defendant, a newer restaurant named Daryaganj, has countered by pointing out that it, too, has ancestral ties to another cook who claimed ownership of the dish.

This month, proceedings in the Delhi High Court will resume, with a major hearing scheduled for May. Managers at both restaurants have submitted newspaper clippings, archival photographs and food awards to back up their claims. Publicity from the case has been a financial and marketing boon for the chains, evoking nostalgia for the creamy chicken dish.

“It’s my family legacy that’s in question here,” said Monish Gujral, the owner of Moti Mahal Delux. Gujral said his grandfather created butter chicken before Partition happened in the 1940s. “It’s a very personal thing.”

This is no minor lawsuit in Delhi, where bylanes are packed with vendors selling every kind of spice, the local tea seller is a neighborhood fixture and food is inscribed with centuries of culture. Many of the city’s iconic dishes survived and evolved through generations of foreign rule and plunder. The tussle over butter chicken is about branding and business, but it also gestures at sacred preoccupations in India, where the origin of everything from the tunday kabab to rasgulla, a spongy dumpling, has come under similar scrutiny.

Delhi’s food culture took shape in the 1600s during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, whose imperial kitchen housed cooks from Turkey, Iran and communities across South Asia. Spices served a practical purpose at the time. When a local hakim, or medicine man, found that many people were falling sick from polluted water, he suggested settling the stomach by adding lots of masala, ghee and yogurt to dishes, according to Salma Husain, an author and food historian.

After British rule, India’s palate tasted an explosion of new flavors. Migrants from Punjab brought tandoori cuisine to Delhi, using a large clay oven, sometimes buried in the ground, to cook poultry, vegetables and breads. Old Delhi, with its grand sandstone mosques, elegant havelis and thousands of hawker stands, became a laboratory for culinary experiments. Chefs added heavy creams to dry Mughlai meat dishes, concocting thick, flavorful curries. The variety drew visitors from across India.

“As a city, Delhi is where the quest for food is fulfilled,” Husain said.

Kundan Lal Gujral was among those to make Delhi home after the bloody period of Partition. A migrant from Peshawar, now part of Pakistan, Gujral and his business partners opened the original Moti Mahal in the middle of the capital. As the story goes, Gujral created butter chicken to make use of leftover poultry. With his lambswool fez and signature mustache, he served some of the world’s most famous people, including the Shah of Iran and Jacqueline Kennedy.

A question mark appeared over that narrative in 2019 with the opening of Daryaganj. The restaurant chain was cofounded by the grandson of Kundan Lal Jaggi, a chef and business partner in the original Moti Mahal. Daryaganj’s menus detail that chronology with an illustrated timeline, noting that butter chicken was invented after a large group of hungry customers showed up one evening. Jaggi, who was preparing to close the kitchen, improvised the recipe so his guests would have enough food.

“The right people should get the credit for what they started,” said Amit Bagga, the chief executive of Daryaganj. He called trademarking such a widely adapted meal like butter chicken – and daal makhani, another staple claimed by Moti Mahal – “preposterous.”

Today, the neighborhood where butter chicken was popularized is a tribute to the ways in which food nourishes the souls of Delhiites. In Chandni Chowk, a loud, labyrinthine shopping district, one street is devoted entirely to selling varieties of paratha, a flatbread. Every morning, scores of people from around Delhi line up at a single stall for a breakfast of chole bathure, spicy chickpeas served with puffy, deep-fried poori.

Rajeev Gupta, who conducts food tours in the area, said Delhi’s restaurants are so firmly entrenched in their zip codes that they go out of their way to make a point of it. Take Jalebi Wala, a sweets vendor in Chandni Chowk that purports to have opened in 1884. “OLD FAMOUS,” the signage declares. “WE HAVE NO OTHER BRANCH IN DELHI.”

Today, the neighborhood where butter chicken was popularized is a tribute to the ways in which food nourishes the souls of Delhiites.

The fight over butter chicken resonates because food is an identity here, Mr Gupta said, encompassing the reputation of a family, the memory of a painful migration, the start of a new life and the community that follows from sharing a hearty meal with those who matter.

“In Delhi, it’s not only about food,” he said. “It’s about going together. Just for having a famous paratha, people are driving 80 kilometers. It’s everything for us.”

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