This article appeared in The Hindu
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Where Butter Chicken and Dal Makhni originated – Moti Mahal Daryaganj
Think of a Punjabi staple which is a byword in North Indian dish roster and the answer usually is Butter Chicken, Tandoori Chicken and Dal Makhni. It is a menu chart which no restaurant is complete. These staple were, introduced to Delhi and the world through this restaurant - Moti Mahal Restaurant at Daryaganj. The man credited with the creation, Kundan Lal Gujral. From what one can glean from written records, was that he ran a small dhaba in Peshawar in 1920s. He came to Delhi post partition and started a food business and the Moti Mahal restaurant happened in 1947. The cuisine history reads thus, to produce a lighter version of the heavy korma, chicken was grilled in the Tandoor. The tandoor was used for making bread but not for meat. This resulted in tandoori chicken. It was to find a solution for the leftover tandoor chicken that the butter chicken happened. To soften the chicken, it was marinated in yogurt and cooked, to the addition of makhni gravy - tomatoes, cream et all. Dal makhni was invented at Moti Mahal to find a vegetarian equivalent. Whole urad was used in the same makhni gravy, thus the unforgettable Dal Makhni was created. Thus, the repertoire found a permanent place in the North Indian cuisine lexicon. Of course, the spices used then were minimal and less elaborate.
The restaurant is not difficult to find, being located at the main road in Daryaganj. It is calmer and away from the hustle bustle of the main Daryaganj Road. However, there are signs of decrepit. Inside the décor is typical of the 70s/ 80s restaurant, with huge floral decorations, pink ceilings with decorations. The entrance though is nice with lots of green. The outdoor dining area is there, where Qawalis used to be held. A battery of Award hangs from the wall along with a photo of Gordon Ramsey who came here to learn how to make Tandoori Chicken.
The current owner Vinod Chadha says, “What I bought was the rental rights to this place from Kundal Lal Gujral in 1991 and what was there of the establishment. It was a khandar - ruin. During its hey days from 1947 to 1980s it was the toast of connoisseurs of food. It was the only establishment which served Tandoori chicken, Dal Makhni and Butter Chicken and people flocked. There was Ashoka Hotel, Gaylord and Moti Mahal. ” There are several reports of every President, Prime Minister, Film Stars having eaten here. Chadha says, “the food here was excellent, there are no two ways to it. I have myself eaten here several times and the food was just great. I do not know much about the origins as I was not there and it will not be right for me to speak about it.”
After Chadha took over, he bought the place from the owners, re-built and revamped it – air conditioning was installed and the menu revamped. So I query was the secret recipe of Butter Chicken, Tandoori Chicken and Dal Makhni given to you by Kundan Lal? Chadha says, “it was not needed as by then these items were being made everywhere. Restaurateurs had deciphered the signature dishes and replication had begun. I am veteran of the hotel industry, with degrees in Hotel Management and have travelled across the globe – all on 100% scholarships. I had worked in the Middle East, then at the Taj and finally for over 21 years at Gaylord Restaurant, Connaught Place. I knew how these dishes were made. I actually made it better, we improvised, today we cater to customers from across the globe. We have no branches anywhere.” The Dal Makhni is tasty, though slightly tangy and spicy for my taste buds but wonder of wonders it does not leave a heavy feeling in its aftermath.It is rich and creamy but not in the heavy greasy category. The masala used is special and Chadha does not reveal the secret of the Dal Makhni what he does say is “it is a mixture of whole urad, chana dal and rajma and is cooked in milk.” It is probably that which makes it so creamy and thick without the grease factor which one observes in other places. He adds, “I can assure, my food will not make anyone feel sick or having over eaten. It is light on the palette.” Curd is used instead of ghee to make the dishes lighter.
The place has its connoisseurs – Dabbas or boxes were sent out to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, actor Akshay Kumar got his dose of Butter Chicken and Chicken Tikka.
The menu is skewed towards non-vegetarian fare – 60% and the rest vegetarian. Chinese cuisine has been introduced to pamper the taste buds of children accompanying parents. The joint has 30 different ways to prepare chicken and a similar number of meat. They make close to 2 – 3 kgs of dal; 50 – 60 kgs of chicken – on daily basis . Marinating for dishes takes around 8 hours, 3 – 4 hours for some Chadha says, “we want to develop it further and were waiting for the heritage line to be completed before starting.”