Food for Thought: Butter Chicken

The traditional dish started with simple ingredients and a desire to diminish food waste

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close-up shot of butter chicken piled on top of rice
Butter Chicken has come a long way since its humble beginnings. Photo Courtesy of Affaf Ali / Wikimedia

By: Roshi Chadha, SFU Student

Being from Punjab, Northern India, I have many childhood memories of eating my favourite dish, butter chicken curry, with my parents. This luscious curry, paired with scented jeera rice or naan, always lifted my mood. This meal is not only famous in India but in many other parts of the world. The smell of butter and tender chicken pieces mixed in warm tomato-flavoured sauce is mouth watering. Since moving to Canada three years ago, I have tried this dish at many different places around Vancouver but none have measured up to the dish made by my mom. I think the secret ingredient for my mom’s recipe is definitely the authentic curry leaves, known as sweet neem, that add more rich flavour to the dish.

Butter chicken was developed by Kundan Lal Jaggia and Kundan Lal Gurjal, who began their culinary journey operating a small road-side eatery in Peshawar, Pakistan. After partition in 1947, both the owners resettled in India where they created murgh makhani (butter chicken) in their restaurant, Moti Mahal. It was a common practice at the time to throw out leftovers right away to avoid the risk of eating spoiled food. However, the owners of this restaurant began using their infamous leftover tandoori chicken pieces to make into a sweet-savoury sauce with lots of butter and cream. This is how butter chicken originated — as a creative and delicious way to combat excess food waste.

It is surprising to see the humble dish, made in a small roadside restaurant, make its way to different states in India. Since its beginnings, the butter chicken recipe spread throughout the world with its first introduction in Manhattan. It first appeared there through a print in the newspaper in 1975 highlighting the butter chicken dish served at Gaylord Indian restaurant. Additionally, Indian families who migrated to Canada and other parts of the world began to open their own restaurants and serving this traditional dish.

Butter chicken is a dish that seems complicated to cook but in reality only requires a few main ingredients like butter, chicken, Indian spices such as turmeric and cumin, and staple vegetables like tomatoes and onions. It doesn’t take too long to make and is a hearty and delightful meal after a tiring day. Butter chicken is usually cooked in North India on many special occasions such as Diwali and Holi as it is a traditional comfort food and a staple in our culture.

In current western society, this butter chicken curry is also used separately as fillings for wraps, burgers, pizzas, and pot pies. Although it makes me feel a little bit anguished knowing the dish is getting further from the traditional recipe, it’s been interesting to see the popularity and different interpretations of butter chicken in the western world. If you are curious to try this dish, some of my favourite restaurants to order butter chicken from are Sula Indian restaurant and Tasty Indian Bistro.