When fellow food blogger Sid Khullar of Chef At Large recently came across a Facebook ad for “the classiest butter chicken on earth”, he couldn’t resist. A couple of clicks later, he discovered that the product, Anaarkali Butter Chicken, also appeared to be the most expensive butter chicken on earth, at a whopping Rs. 6000 per 650gm dual serving. “Splutter… chicken,” I managed, when he shared this, er, chicken nugget with me.
Several phone calls and email exchanges later, Sid and I decided to take an innovative, synergized approach to leveraging the blogging platform with a view to analyzing Anaarkali Butter Chicken as a food product. In non-corporate-speak, people, we’re doing a double-blog feature, a first for both of us.
It Costs How Much?
I love butter. I like chicken. And whenever the twain meet in that rich, tomato-based concoction known as butter chicken, my triglyceride levels excitedly shoot through the roof as my arteries clog in anticipation.
Anaarkali Butter Chicken claims to use high-end branded ingredients in their recipe, including Lurpak butter, President Whipping Cream, and – get this – Evian mineral water and Phillipo Berio Olive Oil (huh? olive oil in apna butter chicken?) I still couldn’t wrap my head around the Rs. 6000 price tag, however, so I decided to make – and price – butter chicken at home using traditional ingredients. For its part, Anaarkali has uploaded a cost sheet on its FAQ page (some of the figures quoted are more than I would pay for certain ingredients).
Butter Chicken’s Humble Origins
To begin with, I researched the origins of butter chicken, aka murgh makhani, in the interests of finding an authentic recipe. As a post-partition dish, butter chicken is a relative newcomer to the Indian culinary repertoire, and owes its existence to a man named Kundan Lal Gujral.
Prior to India’s partition, Gujral ran a restaurant called Moti Mahal in Peshawar. We may never know what inspired him to try cooking chickens in the tandoors (bell-shaped clay ovens set into the earth and fired with charcoal) locally used to cook naans (leavened bread). Gujral’s clay-oven chicken recipe is today known and loved the world over as tandoori chicken.
When Punjab was partitioned in 1947, Peshawar became part of Pakistan and Gujral became one of the thousands of refugees fleeing to India. He reopened his beloved Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, Delhi – and the crisp-outside, juicy-inside tandoori chicken became the talk of the town. Visiting dignitaries like John Kennedy, Khrushchev, the King of Nepal, and the Shah of Iran spread the word globally: tandoori chicken had officially arrived.
There was one problem: from a restaurant costing point of view, the leftovers didn’t keep too well. They dried out. In order to keep the leftover chicken pieces moist, someone – maybe Gujral himself, maybe one of his chefs – concocted a rich, butter-laden, tomato-based gravy. Thus was born butter chicken.
In his book, The Moti Mahal Cookbook: On The Butter Chicken Trail, Monish Gujral, Kundan Lal’s grandson, shares the original butter chicken recipe. (Download and try it yourself. Highly recommended!) Based on this recipe, the cost of preparing butter chicken that contains 700gm of chicken (as opposed to Anaarkali’s 250 gm of chicken) is Rs. 158.50 (using fresh ground spices, Amul butter and cream as specified by Gujral, and the same brand of chicken, Real Good, that Anaarkali uses). This amount does not include my time and labor, or the cost of gas, electricity, and kitchen equipment.
The Anaarkali Story
Statutory warning: I did not pay for the butter chicken (at six big ones, I couldn’t afford to, honey!) A free sample was delivered to my home.
Anaarkali Butter Chicken is the brainchild of IB Saxena and Padma Prasad, who delivered my tasting portion personally and spent some time talking with me about their passion for the dish. IB, as he is called, explained how their attempts to replicate a great butter chicken they tasted in NOIDA slowly turned into an obsession. “We tried and tried and tried,” he said. “And it took us eight years to get it right, but we finally did.”
I had decided not to ask them about the extraordinary price tag, because I believe that price and value are a matter of personal choice. I myself have paid exorbitant amounts for Kobe beef, for sushi, for foie gras – choices that people may find completely bewildering and “so not worth it”.
Instead, I decided to focus solely on the food. I wanted to know, for example, why they were using Lurpak butter and imported olive oil. IB explained that when he “found” the perfect taste he had been seeking, he happened to be in the US – and that those were the ingredients available to him at the time. On his return to India, he did try to go back to desi ingredients, but found that the taste just wasn’t the same. Plausible enough, I thought…
IB’s passion for food shines through. You can see it in his eyes when he talks about Iranian chelow kebabs, and of the food culture of Iran in general, where he spent his childhood. Although I believe that passion can often make the difference between a good dish and an outstanding one, it takes a whole lot more than that to tickle my taste buds, baby – especially if you’re charging big bucks for the privilege.
The Meat of The Matter
And so to the literal meat of the matter – the butter chicken itself. It is, as they promise, beautifully packaged. The dish comes to you chilled, and they recommend that you microwave it “so that it heats evenly,” says IB.
Unfortunately, there was no electricity the day ABC was served in my humble abode, so Padma kindly heated it up on the stove for us, in accordance with the strict instructions provided for just that eventuality. While the garnish does contain silver vark, it is a very tiny amount, and I saw no evidence of gold vark.
At my invitation, chef Gautam Krishnankutty strolled across from his café to partake of the plunder. Mr. Small and Giant Vacuum Cleaner ate a morsel each too, as did Bruce Lee Mani (making an increasing number of appearances on this blog) and The Spouse.
So here’s the thing: it tasted great. I can say, without reservation, that this has to rank as the best butter chicken I have ever tasted.
Gautam declared that it tasted “real”. He admired the texture of the gravy and the freshness of the ingredients. The aroma of kasoori methi wafted from the box as soon as it was opened. The flavors were keen, and evenly balanced, revealing themselves in layers. The chicken itself was moist and succulent – difficult to achieve with breast pieces. You could smell real butter, not only in the gravy, but also in the chicken. It left a faint yet rich aftertaste.
We live in South India, as The Spouse pointed out. Our benchmark for butter chicken is not very high. We are used to eating bright red crap with a swirl of cream atop it and calling it butter chicken (photographs of the “control” butter chicken I ordered from a dhaba underscore this point). Therefore, on consuming a butter chicken that tastes the way it is supposed to, we are rapturous – it’s a whole new experience. The Spouse, on the other hand, has lived and traveled in north India. He liked Anaarkali, and agreed that it was indeed a “very good” butter chicken – however, he felt that “in Delhi, this is par for the course… this is what butter chicken tastes like in most good establishments, Moti Mahal included.” In other words, it was good – but not exceptional.
Sid’s tasting experience completely bore his theory out. And thus, I was forced to utter three words to The Spouse that shall never be uttered again: “You were right”. See what Sid has to say on the Chef At Large blog…