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A deep dive into the controversy over who created the Indian dish: butter chicken

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Butter chicken is to India what hamburgers are to America - a household dish that you can find anywhere. In the West, butter chicken is the star of Indian takeout. There are even riffs on it like butter chicken pizza, butter chicken fries, butter chicken pasta. But who gets to say they invented butter chicken? Which came first, the butter or the chicken? Well, there's a fight in the New Delhi high court over that question. NPR's Diaa Hadid is on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASPINDER NARULA SONG, "BUTTER CHICKEN")

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Butter chicken is a smoky, tandoor-roasted bird doused in a buttery tomato sauce, mopped up with crusty naan bread.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER CHICKEN")

JASPINDER NARULA: (Singing in Hindi).

HADID: But it's so much more. In India, the words can be a saucy wink.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTER CHICKEN")

NARULA: (Singing) Butter chicken, butter chicken.

HADID: It's the go-to of countless YouTube cooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

VARUN INAMDAR: Hi, guys. Welcome to Get Curried. What I bring to your kitchen today is butter chicken.

HADID: It's shorthand for a culinary hug, and the dish is woven into the story of modern India, created in the Partition of South Asia in 1947. Independence came amid a frenzy of communal violence. Millions of Muslims fled to Pakistan, Sikhs and Hindus to India. They included Kundan Lal Jaggi and Kundan Lal Gujral, two men who shared the same first name, the same profession, cooks, and the same hometown, Peshawar, in what became Pakistan. And after the two arrived in New Delhi, they shared a restaurant, too, Moti Mahal. They served dishes that were new to locals - like butter chicken.

MADHUR JAFFREY: It tasted creamy, melty and delicious. You break your naan; you break a piece of butter chicken, and then you bite into a piece of that pickled onion. And it was really heaven.

HADID: That celebrated chef and actress Madhur Jaffrey. She grew up in Delhi and used to eat at Moti Mahal.

JAFFREY: It didn't have an Indian taste that I knew, and that's why we loved it, because it was like nothing we'd had before.

AMIT BAGGA: So they became the most successful restaurant in India at that time.

HADID: Amit Bagga co-owns an Indian butter chicken franchise with Jaggi's grandson, and he's familiar with the Moti Mahal origin story. He says the place was boosted by some serious star power.

BAGGA: They had a guest, Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India.

HADID: Nehru even invited state guests there.

BAGGA: Richard Nixon, Jacqueline Kennedy. Top people used to come there. All of them used to try the same food - butter chicken, tandoori chicken.

HADID: The two original cooks, Gujral and Jaggi, sold the restaurant in the '90s. Soon after, the Gujral family created their own butter chicken spinoff franchise.

Outside one of their outlets in New Delhi, a sign claims - Gujral invented butter chicken. Inside, we're served by a chicken that's as heavy as the red-velvet decor, the way many here like it. A few years back, serious competition emerged. Amit Bagga opened a butter chicken franchise with the grandson of Jaggi.

Outside one of their outlets in New Delhi, a sign proclaims - Jaggi invented butter chicken. But this only became a fight after Jaggi's grandson repeated that claim on a popular TV show last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And Kundal Lal Jaggi, the man who invented butter chicken. (Speaking Hindi).

HADID: He said his grandfather whipped up a source of butter and tomato to stretch out a few pieces of tandoori chicken to serve a flurry of guests who came into the restaurant one night. A few months later, in January, the Gujrals filed a lawsuit that was 2,752 pages long. The next hearing is on May 29. Monish is the grandson of Kundan Lal Gujral, that other cook.

MONISH GUJRAL: The suit has been filed to protect my family legacy.

HADID: He says his grandfather, Gujral, concocted the creamy sauce as a way to sell leftover cooked chicken.

GUJRAL: So he wanted to put it in a gravy sort of a format so that it could be served later.

HADID: And this is key. He says his grandfather, Gujral, created the dish way before he ever came to India. He says he created butter chicken before Partition in a restaurant he used to run in Peshawar, now in northwest Pakistan. It was also called Moti Mahal. So I asked a reporter in Peshawar to see if anyone could remember the place, and they did, like Iqbal Arif.

IQBAL ARIF: (Speaking Hindi).

HADID: Arif says his father told him a man called Kundan Lal worked in a place called Moti Mahal in Peshawar. He was famous for serving chicken in a buttery sauce. The problem is, Kundan Lal is the first name of both the cooks. And there's another twist. Both the Kundan Lals, Gujral and Jaggi, had earlier worked for another man in Peshawar. His name was Mukhi Singh. And some of the residents said the man who made butter chicken in Peshawar was called Kundan Lal Singh. That's a mishmash of all their names.

So what's going on here? Pushpesh Pant is an Indian food historian.

PUSHPESH PANT: Who invented the butter chicken? It's like saying that, who discovered fire?

HADID: But I wanted to dig deeper because I used to live in Pakistan. And Peshawar is famous for juicy grilled meat, not creamy sauces. And butter chicken isn't even a thing in Pakistan.

NILOFER AFRIDI QAZI: It is not enjoyed so widely in what is Pakistan today.

HADID: Nilofer Afridi Qazi documents Pakistani food traditions. She says butter chicken could have been invented in Peshawar before Partition, when the British had a large garrison there because it lay on the empire's northwest border. Moti Mahal was located in that garrison. So was the place of Mukhi Singh. So butter chicken, that iconic Indian dish, was it created for British soldiers to play to British tastes? This is Pant, the food critic.

PANT: It is essentially a non-Indian dish - satin-smooth, butter-laden gravy, boneless chicken. This is the lowest common denominator for a non-Indian palate.

HADID: But if the dish was created in Peshawar, it didn't leave a trace, perhaps because of Partition, when Hindus and Sikhs emptied out of the city and took their food traditions with them, maybe even butter chicken. Regardless of where and who created it, what butter chicken became is spectacular - embraced by the first Indian prime minister as a culinary talisman of his new country, one of India's most famous dishes abroad. Maybe it's worth fighting to own that legacy, even if it is ultimately unknowable.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, New Delhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.