Butter Chicken: Indian restaurant chains clash over origins

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Butter chicken, an internationally acclaimed Indian dish, has become the centre of a legal battle in India as two renowned restaurant chains go head-to-head in court over claims to its origins.

The lawsuit, filed by the family behind Moti Mahal, a historic Delhi restaurant, alleges that their founder, Kundan Lal Gujral, created the iconic curry in the 1930s when the restaurant first opened in Peshawar before later relocating to Delhi. Moti Mahal, a restaurant that has hosted notable figures such as late U.S. President Richard Nixon and India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, is seeking nearly A$360,000 in damages from rival chain Daryaganj.

In a whopping 2,752-page court filing, Moti Mahal accuses Daryaganj of falsely claiming to have invented not only butter chicken but also dal makhani, another popular dish laden with butter and cream. The lawsuit extends beyond culinary matters, with Moti Mahal alleging that Daryaganj copied the layout of its website and the overall ambiance of its restaurants.

“You cannot take away somebody’s legacy… The dish was invented when our grandfather was (living) in Pakistan,” stated Monish Gujral, the managing director at Moti Mahal, emphasising the historical roots of their claim.

However, Daryaganj, a chain established in 2019, counters that its late family member, Kundan Lal Jaggi, had partnered with Gujral to open the Delhi restaurant in 1947, and it was at that time the dish was invented. To support their argument, Daryaganj provided a faded, hand-written partnership document registered in 1949.

The dispute has garnered widespread attention in India, with TV broadcasters running segments on the history of the dish, and social media ablaze with debates and discussions on the matter. Ameet Datta, an intellectual property lawyer at India’s Saikrishna & Associates, told News agency Reuters, “It’s an offbeat, unique case. You really don’t know who created the first dish of butter chicken. The court will be hard-pressed and will need to rely on circumstantial evidence.”

Critical proof in the case could include testimonies from individuals linking the restaurant brands to the dish consumed decades ago. The case was first heard by the Delhi High Court last week, and the next hearing is scheduled for May.

Butter chicken, made with tandoor-cooked chicken pieces mixed in a tomato gravy with dollops of cream and butter, has earned international acclaim and was ranked 43rd on a list of the world’s “best dishes” by TasteAtlas, as rated by nearly 400,000 users. It stands as the second-ranked Indian food after butter garlic naan bread, often paired together in culinary experiences.

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