Believe it or not, Indian’s don’t go crazy for butter chicken, according to Deep Gujral, general manager across Sydney-based restaurant, catering and events businesses for Manjit’s hospitality empire.
If anyone has a birth-right to comment on butter chicken it’s Deep, because, alongside his father Manjit, brother Varun and mother Kawal, he shares a relation to the inventor of butter chicken, Kundan Lal Gujral.
“This is the story that gets passed on from generation. Everyone has added their own little masala to it,” Deep tells SBS Food.
“Some guy in India, some relative of some sort, made this preparation to stop the leftover chicken from spoiling, by soaking it in tomato gravy with butter and cream.”
“This is the story that gets passed on from generation. Everyone has added their own little masala to it.”
Though it’s a popular dish, Deep says Indian clientele seldom offer the dish when dining at one of the Manjit’s many restaurants - despite it being made from the claimed original recipe passed down through generations. Deep says the item is popular among Indian families as a kids meal at Manjit’s functions and events.
“Not all Indians accept butter chicken as their national dish,” he notes.
“Butter chicken you can eat in India, but over there every restaurant has its speciality and butter chicken is not it. All the Aussies love it though, they take it like it’s [a drug].”
The story of this popular dish goes that the Kundan opened a restaurant in Delhi, India with two other founders, Kundan Lal Jaggi and Thakur Dass, called Moti Mahal.
It was developed by Kundan, who refreshed day-old tandoori chicken pieces in a rich tomato gravy, fortified with butter and cream to keep them moist for re-sale. Kundan is also credited for inventing the tandoori chicken and dal makhani.
“[The original] Moti Mahal’s closed down, but from there butter chicken became very very popular. That man was a relative of my father. I don’t know how, but his last name is a Gujral as well, so he must be from my father’s father’s side of the family. I think he’s my grandfather’s cousin or something like that.
“So dad [Manjit] migrates to Australia, and my grandma started making the dish at home as it’s an age-old tradition. From there we put it in the restaurants and it’s exploded. Everyone eats our butter chicken, it’s known as the very famous butter chicken of Sydney,” he says.
“There are customers that come from Singapore, from Asia and Europe, because they’ve heard the history behind it. We have celebrities that have come particularly for the butter chicken.”
"Everyone eats our butter chicken, it’s known as the very famous butter chicken of Sydney.”
Manjit’s isn’t the only establishment bombarded by popularity for its butter chicken. In its heyday, Moti Mahal was swamped with celebrities including notable Indian leaders Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Zakir Hissain, and foreign leaders Richard Nixon, John F Kennedy and Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
They’re also not the only establishment to capitalise from the dish’s history as Kundan Lal Gujral’s son, Nand Lal Gujral has evolved the original restaurant into a chain, named Moti Mahal Delux. It spans across India with dozens of locations, and singular international outposts in Oman, Tanzania, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand.
In Australia, however, you can find this butter chicken recipe at Manjit’s in four different locations across New South Wales.
Manjit’s also serves a butter chicken bounty at their catering and events business - around 600kg per week.
“The butter chicken is the most popular, in every one of our restaurants. It’s the biggest seller,” Deep says.
Deep’s brother, Varun, who is executive chef at the family business, is putting his own twist on the historic dish. It’s taken some encouragement to convince their father Manjit, but butter chicken dishes are now served in a modern style on individual plates at the company’s functions.
“You can’t plate Indian cuisine, it runs everywhere, the sauce goes all over the plate and it doesn’t look good. Indians would even throw it back at you,” jokes Deep.
“For the butter chicken we’ve actually taken the whole chicken breast and served it with the sauce, then put together a mixed vegetable spicy jalfrezi and spicy potato mash, Kiev-style.
“This is a new way of doing it. We pride ourselves on being trendsetters,” he says.
Demand for the dish has become so great that Manjit’s is now going into the ready-to-eat market and will be pre-packaging butter chicken meals for a new brand called Manjit’s Home Range. They will be launching the product in mid-August and will include other usual suspects like vindaloo and madras.
Looks like that 600kg-a-week butter chicken output volume is set to rise.
Turban Legend, a short documentary featuring the Gujral family business airs Wednesday 14 August at 8:30pm on SBS as part of Untold Australia Season 4 and will be available after broadcast on SBS On Demand.
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