Finding the Home of Butter Chicken
The first stop on my gastronomic adventure began at Moti Mahal (Palace of Pearl), one of the oldest restaurants in Delhi. As old as independent India, it was established in 1947 and is the first restaurant to introduce tandoori cuisine in India. It is also credited with inventing dishes such as “dal makhani” — black gram lentils with tomatoes, cream and butter — and “butter chicken” that have become hallmarks of Indian food globally.
The meal at Moti Mahal restaurant literally changed my perspective on Indian food and what it should be. The family that runs the restaurant were refugees from the war in Lahore in Pakistan. With my good friend Sharang as my guide, the humble entrance certainly fools you into a sense that this is just a simple everyday eatery. That being said, the aromas and flavours that come out of this 100-year-old kitchen will certainly rock your world and leave you reminiscing about your meal for days on end. I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of the kitchen, only reserved for the likes of famous chefs such as Ramsey and Blumenthal. Staring into the tandoori oven, my mind drifted to the first chef looking down into the clay oven that stood proudly in the front of the kitchen I couldn’t help but feel I was being transported back in time. The smell of the wood burning, the crackling of the nan rising on the stone walls, faint traces of the tandoori roasting away to perfection. I felt an immense sense of honour to stand in a place where many chefs before me had created these incredible meals and to be given a glimpse into Moti Mahal’s beautiful past.
My stomach now rumbling, we quickly sat down to what would be a meal that would change all my perceptions of what I knew. We began with the tandoori of course with a beautiful green chutney made of fresh mint lemon and yoghurt. The chicken was perfectly crispy, with soft burnt ends all the while moist and succulent in texture. The spice and the chutney lifted each other up, like best friends on the playground, running and dancing across my palate. I try to understand it, but my mind couldn’t think as fast as my mouth and before we knew it we had devoured a whole chicken between the two of us; patiently awaiting our next course, their famous butter chicken.
The dish has humble beginnings in the 1950s when the founder realized that dry pieces of tandoori chicken go bad very quickly without refrigeration, he decided to add gravy to them. He took the leftover pieces of tandoori chicken and cooked them over a low flame in a gravy of butter, spices, cream and tomatoes. The result was butter chicken, a dish that is now a staple of Indian restaurants around the world. It is no wonder the restaurant alone, serves over 100,000 butter chickens a year. Not too spicy, not too sweet the cream balancing the dish like a conductor in an orchestra, it had all the right notes of pure adultery contained within a single bowl. Served with oven-crisp crispy naan bread to mop up all the flavour, we were treated to a walk-through flavour heaven, complete with fresh daikon and cucumber on the side as palate cleanser.
Visiting Delhi and not going to Moti Mahal is like going to Agra and not visiting the Taj Mahal.