Butter chicken wars: who does Delhi’s signature dish best? Everyone has their opinion

“For me, this is the best butter chicken in the city,” says Chhabra, who, like many in the Indian capital, has strong opinions on the dish.
Butter chicken at Ikk Panjab, a Delhi restaurant that showcases the food of Punjab before it was split between India and Pakistan in 1947. Photo: Siddharth Khandelwal
Globally renowned it may be, but Delhi is where butter chicken originated. It is widely available across a spectrum of restaurants and the question “Who makes Delhi’s best butter chicken?” always elicits spirited debate, the variety of responses testament to the fact that the city is spoiled for choice.

Recently, the dish has been in the media spotlight, with two Delhi restaurants in a legal dispute over its origin.

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Moti Mahal, a restaurant chain started in 1947, has always maintained that its founder, Kundan Lal Gujral, invented butter chicken.

In January, Moti Mahal’s owners sued Daryaganj, a restaurant run by the descendants of former Moti Mahal partner Kundan Lal Jaggi, for claiming that it was he who created the dish.

The case is ongoing but the verdict, when it eventually comes, is unlikely to concern Delhi’s seasoned butter chicken fans, their passion for the dish transcending the wrangling over who made it first.

Butter chicken’s history and popularity are intertwined with partition and post-independence India.

Nearly 5 million people flooded into Delhi after independence when what had been British India was split into Pakistan and India, in 1947.

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Murgh makhani [butter chicken] only found fame post partition in Delhi, via Moti Mahal. It was a modern 20th century restaurant invention whose popularity soared because of a new post-partition working-class clientele,” says food historian, author and columnist Anoothi Vishal.

She explains that immigrants from Punjab (the state having been split by partition) were some of the dish’s first consumers because many of them were starting small businesses and needed to eat out.

“As the Punjabi enterprise grew and the newly rich spent money on restaurants, the cult of butter chicken grew,” she says.

And its popularity has continued to grow ever since.

On a recent Saturday night, In The Punjab, an upscale restaurant in a trendy south Delhi market complex, is packed with diners tucking into grilled kebabs, fluffy naans and, of course, butter chicken.
The butter chicken at In The Punjab is rich and indulgent, containing lots of butter and cream, fresh tomatoes and gravy matured for 24 hours. Photo: Siddharth Khandelwal

The preparation, with a silky orange gravy, is mildly sweet, smoky from the shredded tandoori chicken and crowned with swirls of cream.

“We only use fresh tomatoes and mature the gravy for 24 hours, using no cashew paste or other thickeners,” says the restaurant’s corporate chef, Hardeep Singh. “This is a Punjabi restaurant, so our version has lots of butter and cream.”

Publisher Samrata Salwan Diwan, 39, grew up in Delhi and butter chicken has been a favourite dish since childhood.

“My cousins and I love butter chicken and it was, and still is, always ordered at our get-togethers.

“There were several places serving great butter chicken like Mughal Mahal, in Rajendra Place, and The Baithak, in Patel Nagar, close to my Pusa Road home,” she says, highlighting the dish’s popularity in localities that were originally refugee colonies and are still home to (now prosperous) Punjabi communities.

Butter chicken is still one of the hottest sellers and most popular dishes here. I think Delhi is very proud of that

Saransh Goila, founder of delivery chain Goila Butter Chicken

Those restaurants remain nostalgic favourites, but Diwan’s tastes now lean towards lighter versions of the dish, such as that served at contemporary Indian restaurant Pot Pot.

Another of Diwan’s favourites is the iconic Kake Da Hotel, a no-frills two-storey narrow space in central Delhi’s commercial hub, Connaught Place, that opened for business in 1948.

A large window overlooking the road provides passers-by with a glimpse and whiff of rich meaty gravies simmering in large degchi (metal cooking vessels).

Even at 6.15pm – early for dinner by Indian standards – the closely crammed red Formica tables are filled with diners relishing specialities such as saag meat (spinach and meat); gurde kapure (goat offal in a spicy gravy); and a deliciously tangy butter chicken with a rich reddish-brown gravy, unembellished except for a melted pool of butter skimming the surface and a visible char on the chicken that provides a pleasant smokiness.

The wide appeal of the dish is apparent in the array of customers found in Kake Da Hotel on this writer’s visit, including students, families, office workers and a couple waiting for their takeaway order in an expensive SUV.

Kake Da Hotel, in Delhi. Photo: Siddharth Khandelwal
Those who pass by Kake Da Hotel can get a glimpse and whiff of the food simmering in large degchi. Photo: Siddharth Khandelwal

The enduring popularity of north Indian cuisine – and particularly butter chicken – is also visible in the clusters of people waiting for a table, even on a week night, in central Delhi’s Pandara Road Market, where some of the heavyweights in the butter chicken wars – Gulati, Havemore, Pindi and Chicken Inn, all established between 1948 and 1960 – stand shoulder to shoulder.

Almost every table at Havemore bears what a signboard outside proudly declares as “Delhi’s most awarded and loved butter chicken”: a luxuriously velvety preparation with a kick of ginger, smokiness from the charred chicken and a mild green pepper thrown into the mix.

It is not just the city’s legacy restaurants that are popular with butter chicken enthusiasts.

Nestled in a busy market in west Delhi’s Rajouri Garden is Ikk Panjab, a restaurant that opened only in 2017. The menu and intriguing decor – antique rifles, pre-partition black-and-white photos and traditional cooking utensils – showcase the heritage of the undivided Punjab.

A wall displays accolades including that which names Ikk Panjab as the winner of Beer Buddies’ (a popular beer lovers’ community) Best Butter Chicken Hunt 2023.

A sign outside Havemore restaurant advertises its award-winning butter chicken. Photo: Siddharth Khandelwal

The version here is indulgent but not too sweet and has a slightly coarse gravy. Its chicken on the bone is more flavourful than the more convenient boneless style.

Boneless chicken or on the bone; tangy or sweet; silky or coarse gravy: all these and many other characteristics of a “perfect” butter chicken are endlessly argued over on the Facebook page of a popular online Delhi food community.

“People in Delhi are very particular about how they want to eat butter chicken, having served and eaten it for 70 to 80 years,” says chef Saransh Goila, founder of delivery chain Goila Butter Chicken.

Brought up in Delhi in a vegetarian family, Goila first tasted butter chicken at culinary school, and was inspired to create a lighter version, with smoke-infused butter and less cream.

He launched his brand in 2016 in Mumbai, where he is based, to great appreciation and expanded across India, adding Delhi to his portfolio in 2022.

Authentic butter chicken always has fresh tomatoes, never canned or puréed, and tandoori chicken

Ashwani Shroff of Spicy Triangle

“It was tough entering Delhi’s established and sensitive market for north Indian food,” he says. But sales have grown in the past few months, Goila believing that his market are millennials and the younger generations, who appreciate classics in a contemporary format.

Beyond restaurants there are other producers of butter chicken, such as cloud kitchen Spicy Triangle, founded by Ashwani Shroff.

Having worked with the Moti Mahal group for 30 years, he is well versed in the city’s love of north Indian cuisine.

Ordered by 90 per cent of his customers, his butter chicken feels lighter, like a home-made dish, and is mildly tangy with a smooth gravy.

Although the dish has almost as many interpretations as there are outlets making it, Shroff believes that some elements are sacrosanct.

Spicy Triangle’s butter chicken feels lighter, and is mildly tangy with a smooth gravy. Photo: Siddharth Khandelwal

“Authentic butter chicken always has fresh tomatoes, never canned or puréed, and tandoori chicken. Original versions never included garnishes like uncooked swirls of cream, kasuri methi (dried fenugreek leaves) or ginger slivers. They have no role in a butter chicken.”

It is evident that Delhi’s residents have deep-seated preferences when it comes to their butter chicken.

“Delhi really understands the pulse of – and has done justice to – this kind of north Indian cuisine over the years,” says Goila. “Butter chicken is still one of the hottest sellers and most popular dishes here.

“I think Delhi is very proud of that.”


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