Curry on Regardless: Culinary Conflicts That Take the Cake

Two renowned Delhi restaurants are engaged in a legal kitchen-sink drama to establish who is the true inventor of the butter chicken.

Which came first, the chicken or the ego? That seems to be the crux of the lawsuit that’s cooking up a storm in a Delhi court, concerning the provenance of a curry preparation consisting of pieces of poultry smothered in thick tomato gravy, enriched with lashings of butter, which is known and relished not only all over the country but also in foreign fields forever desi, thanks to the great Indian diaspora, and known as butter chicken.

Two renowned Delhi restaurants are engaged in a legal kitchen-sink drama to establish who is the true begetter of the dish, with each accusing the other of copy-cattery most fowl.

Chroniclers of cuisine trace the origins of the disputed dish to pre-Partition Peshawar when a young man called Mokha Singh, with the help of three partners, started an eatery called Moti Mahal.

After Partition, Singh found himself in Delhi where he chanced upon his former associates, who convinced him to relaunch their joint-venture restaurant in Daryaganj where, according to foodie lore, butter chicken was hatched by happy happenstance.

Thrift, the mother of improvisation, inspired the entrepreneurs to douse left-over tikkas with tomato gravy, creamed with dollops of butter and – before you could say Eureka! in Punjabi – culinary history was made.

With Butter Chicken the speciality of the house, the new Moti Mahal gained an enthusiastic patronage which reportedly included former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

In 1984, a New York Times article quoted Indian independence activist Maulana Azad recommending to the Shah of Iran that on his trip to India he “must make two visits – to the Taj Mahal and to Moti Mahal”.

Renown, however, often goes before rivalry, and descendants of the original establishment started a competing restaurant which claimed proprietorial rights over the original butter chicken, a contention now up for hearing to determine who’s making a murga out of whom.

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It’s not just chickens that come to roost in courts, which are also approached by those who feel that they’ve not got their just deserts, or desserts. In 2015, Bengal and Odisha locked horns over who could rightly lay claim to the origin of the rasagulla and get geographical indication (GI) for the succulent confection.

Odisha refuted Bengal’s assertion that the sweet was created in Calcutta by Nobin Chandra Das in 1868, and predated the Odisha version. On the contrary, Odisha said, the rasagulla saw the light of day in Puri in the 12th century as a votive offering in the Jagannath temple. The state government declared July 30 as Rasagulla Dibasa (Rasagulla Day).

In response, Bengal announced that henceforth December 28 would be observed as Rossogolla Utsob (Rasagulla Festival).every year.

The courtroom tussle over the sweetmeat lasted over two years and concluded with both sides claiming separate GI status of their version of the delicacy – a gratifying conclusion for those who profess to have a sweet tooth as well as a penchant for the sweet truth.

In another confected cause célèbre, which literally takes the cake, Vienna became an arena for food feud over a dessert which traces its origin to 1832, the famous Sacher Torte.

The torte was conceived when the pastry chef of Clemens, Wenzel Lothar Furst von Metternich, fell ill on the eve of a dinner party and a 16-year-old apprentice, Franz Sacher, had to be roped in to fit the bill of fare.

Franz came up with a chocolate gateau with two layers of apricot jam, a recipe which he subsequently perfected over 12 years in his family-owned Sacher Hotel, and which was kept under a wrap of secrecy.

Franz’s eldest son, Eduard, having completed his own apprenticeship at Vienna’s Demel Bakery, which catered to Austria’s royal family, joined his family enterprise. Some years later however, financial compulsion made him grant Demel Bakery the sole rights to market the ‘Eduard Sacher Torte’, even as the Sacher Hotel continued to sell the ‘Original Sacher Torte’.

This resulted in a legal tug-of-war that lasted 30 years. It involved forensic minutiae like how much apricot jam was to be found in the authentic product and whether it was added before or after baking the cake.

Eventually, a compromise settlement was reached by allowing both brands to be marketed, giving connoisseurs much cause for debate as to which is the real McCoy, or the real McCake, and providing other food for torte. As well as tort.

Jug Suraiya is a well-known columnist and writer.

This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.