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Butter Chicken Battle: Moti Mahal Vs. Daryaganj Comes To Delhi HC


Butter chicken is once again in the spotlight, not as an iconic cultural import from India a haven of succulent comfort for desis, a staple at the big fat Indian wedding banquet, or a readily available pre-cooked meal in Western supermarkets, as it has always been over the years.

This time, it’s entangled in a tug of war between two prominent restaurant chains in New Delhi, India each staking a claim to the creation of its recipe. 

These two establishments, Moti Mahal and Daryaganj, are not run-of-the-mill but rather landmark spots of culinary excellence. They have earned a coveted spot on the to-do list of any tourist seeking to immerse themselves in the authentic flavours of North Indian delicacies in Delhi, India and are frequented by a loyal base of locals too.

In a 2,752-page lawsuit filing in the Delhi High Court, Moti Mahal restaurant launched a sharp attack on Daryaganj restaurant for falsely claiming credit for the invention of the original butter chicken dish in the public eye.   

Demanding  2 crore INR ($240,000) in damages, the plaintiff (Moti Mahal) detailed its legacy in this court filing, outlining the origins of this globally-celebrated curry. Their grandfather, Kundan Lal Gujral, conceived this dish during the 1920s in Peshawar, present-day Pakistan, and opened the first Moti Mahal restaurant there in the 1930s.

During the 1947 Partition, which led to the splitting of Hindustan into India and Pakistan, Gujral relocated the Moti Mahal restaurant from Peshawar to the Old Delhi area of the capital. It is at this stage where his partnership with Kundan Lal Jaggi, who plays a pivotal role in Daryaganj’s claim to the invention of the dish, comes into the picture.

While the founding of Moti Mahal restaurant dates back to the independence period of 1947, the Daryaganj restaurant is a relatively newer offshoot established by Kundan Lal Jaggi’s descendants in 2019. The Jaggi family claims that the mastermind behind this classic recipe is their relative, Kundan Lal Jaggi, asserting that it originated when the Moti Mahal restaurant sprouted in Delhi in 1947.  

The Jaggi family went above and beyond, claiming that Gujral was merely the front face of the restaurant, while Kundan Lal Jaggi conceived the butter chicken dish when hungry visitors came to the restaurant in 1947, just as it was about to shut down at the end of the day. They suggested turning the leftover tandoori chicken into a wholesome meal by blending it with tomato and cream.

The genesis of invention is not always rooted in fanfare and grandiosity. The mouth-watering butter chicken emerged as a solution to the dehydration of leftover tandoori chicken pieces, which would harden due to prolonged non-use and exposure to moisture.  

The applicant, Rupa Gujral, daughter of Kundan Lal Gujral, along with her son, Monish Gujral, has also accused the Daryaganj restaurant of copying the ‘look and feel’ of Moti Mahal’s website and restaurant interiors.

Dal Makhani, the lentil dish inspired from the same butter chicken curry base, is also being disputed by the two renowned restaurant franchises over its ownership.

Senior advocate Sandeep Sethi is representing Moti Mahal in this lawsuit, while senior advocate Amit Sibal is representing Daryaganj. The first hearing took place on January 16, before a single bench of Justice Sanjeev Narula. The next hearing is scheduled for May.

While Moti Mahal emphasises that Daryaganj can exercise its liberty to continue serving butter chicken and dal makhani dishes to its customers, Daryaganj needs to retract misleading claims of having invented these dishes also advertised on the restaurant signboard as ‘By the Inventors of Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani.’

The plaintiff’s counsel (Moti Mahal) also asserted its statement that claims of Jaggi being the inventor of the much-loved butter chicken dish are evident in the interview video clippings distributed by Daryaganj to the media and in investment pitch video recordings on the show Shark Tank seeking their removal.

Moti Mahal Delux, as it is currently known, is no small player. It has hosted esteemed leaders of state, including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and former American President, Richard Nixon.

A sweeping glance at the restaurant’s aesthetics showcases the pride and commemoration of these historic visits to thousands of visitors. They come from various parts of the globe to acquaint their taste buds with the ultimate butter chicken experience at Moti Mahal, which has positioned itself on the map as the original creators.

The Daryaganj restaurant presented Reuters with a handwritten partnership deed registered in 1947, serving as the legitimate justification of its claim to ownership of the butter chicken recipe.

It emphasises that the recipe took birth in the Moti Mahal restaurant, set up and operated in the Old Delhi area by Jaggi and Gujral post-Partition. This is how Daryaganj counters the Gujral family’s statement that Kundal Lal invented this recipe in Peshawar, ultimately leading to the opening of his first Moti Mahal restaurant there in the 1930s.

The final verdict in this culinary legal drama, regardless of the legendary Indian curry at the heart of it, will have no bearing on the worldwide admiration for it.

Even if Daryaganj and Moti Mahal divest themselves of the “butter chicken inventor” label, business will go on as usual.

For desi NRIs, butter chicken will continue to be imprinted in their minds and hearts as a comforting reminder of their childhood memories and maa ke haath ka khaana. For the general customers of these two restaurants locked in the legal dispute and in the global landscape, it will continue to stand on the pedestal as the ultimate comfort food and India’s evergreen epicurean currency.  

The Delhi High court, which will have a second hearing of this case in May, will have to rely on circumstantial evidence and the testimonies of people who tasted this dish decades ago, setting the stage for a slippery case much like the butter with which it is always cooked to finger-licking perfection.

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