Origin of Butter Chicken – Indian or English?

I have always been asked about Butter Chicken – Do people in India eat Butter Chicken or is it a Westernized Indian dish…


Quest for a new butter chicken recipe?


The original recipe was so popular that a few guests and friends asked me: why, what’s wrong with the old butter chicken?


Last month (July 2016), I visited a few restaurants in Delhi for my inspiration for new Butter Chicken. If anyone is familiar with top Indian hotels like Oberoi, Taj Group or ITC, no one will be surprised to learn that food in these hotels is very good indeed. As a child, I was always told that top hotels recreate the dishes served by Delhi Mughals.


Butter chicken is a classic Delhi dish popularized by Moti Mahal in Daryaganj in the 1950s. But because it is a dish associated with Hindu refugees from the India-Pakistan Partition era, it does not necessarily fit the ‘from the Lodhis to the Mughals’ narrative.


I asked the opinion of a few chefs in Delhi, ranging from 5 star hotels to road-side eateries. They all mostly said that they tried a few butter chickens and then came up with their version of the original recipe.


It was funny to hear from the chefs that their recipes are complex and complicated – a far cry from humble and simple origins. They accept that most modern versions use ingredients that go far beyond the original recipe. One version, for instance, uses dried fenugreek leaves. Most other restaurants in Delhi use cashew-nut paste to thicken the gravy. Another Chef sweetens the butter chicken with a dash of honey. Less fancy places simply use sugar.


Origin of butter chicken - In the 1920s, a man called K Gujral, ran a dhaba at Gora Bazar in Peshawar (now in Pakistan). He popularized tandoori chicken in their little corner of the world but faced a major problem: what could they do with the left over chickens?


Then came the bright idea of making a curry in which the dried out chicken pieces could be softened and served. He invented the butter chicken sauce that is the basis of the dish, using tomatoes, butter and cream. The original recipe called for hardly any spices and required a little cumin, a spoonful of red chilli, and salt to taste. The brilliance of the dish lay in the skillful combination of tomatoes and dairy fat.


Post Partition, the creator came to Delhi, set up Moti Mahal in Old Delhi and turned tandoori chicken into the most famous Indian dish in the world. He brought butter chicken with him from Peshawar and it went on to become the country’s most popular curry.


Most chefs in Delhi would not give me the recipe. The top hotels would not share anything.


I’ve reproduced the original recipe, along with my chef Sudhan Natarjan, in the restaurant to demonstrate how a simple dish acquires newer complexities as each generation creates its own version. The original butter chicken was made with leftover tandoori chicken bone-in, only two-thirds cooked. This remains pretty much the standard for all versions of butter chicken everywhere in India.


My version of Butter Chicken follows.






1 kg Pulpy Tomatoes (over-ripened)              

250 gms Spanish Onion                                         

50 gms Cashewnut                                               

2 tbsp. Dried Fenugreek Leaves                         

2 tsp. Honey                                                    

2 tsp. Coriander Powder                                  

2 1/2 tsp. Kashmiri chili powder                           

Salt to taste                                              

2 pcs. Cinnamon                                              

4 pcs. Green Cardamom pods                        

4 pcs. Cloves                                               

100gms Butter                            

1/2 cup Water                            

1 cup Milk                                 


Marinated Chicken

1/2 kg Whole Chicken                         

75 gms Greek Yoghurt                         

30 ml Mustard Oil                         

50 gms Ginger Garlic Paste                     

1 tbsp. Kashmiri Red Chili Paste                 

A pinch of Green cardamom Powder                 

2 tsp Dried Fenugreek Leaves                

Salt to taste




  1. Marinate the chicken with greek yoghurt, mustard oil, ginger garlic paste, chilli paste, green cardamom powder and salt. Keep this in the fridge overnight or if you’re short on time at least marinade for 2 hours

  2. Roughly chop tomatoes, onion and garlic.

  3. Tie a small bag of muslin cloth with cinnamon, cloves and green cardamom.

  4. In a pressure cooker add the tomatoes, onion, garlic, cashew nut, honey, milk, water, coriander powder, kashmiri chilli powder, salt and muslin spice bag. Cover and cook this for 35 minutes on low heat.

  5. Open the lid and let it cool. Now grind the gravy in a blender to a fine paste.

  6. Make the first tempering by heating 75 gms of butter and sautéing onions and garlic in it. Once onions are white and garlic light brown add the Kashmiri chilli powder. Now add the silky gravy to this tempering. Let it simmer for 10 – 12 mins and the colour will change to a bright orange.

  7. Dry roast fenugreek leaves in a pan, crush it with your palms and add it to the gravy.

  8. Roast the marinated chicken in tandoor. (If you don’t have one flash it in the oven for 12 -15 mins at 180 C). Shred it and discard the bones.

  9. Add this shredded tandoori chicken to the gravy. Simmer for 2-3 mins.

Indian Street Food Co.