There are three kinds of people in this world. Those who love butter chicken, those who think butter chicken is overrated and those who have never tasted butter chicken.
I feel sorry for the third kind.
Butter chicken is probably the most successful immigrant story in Indian history. What started in Moti-Mahal in the streets of Delhi transferred to the UK where it became a worldwide success overnight.
When made correctly, butter chicken is a rich, creamy, spice-filled sauce that narrates the story of India.
As Indians migrated, they brought their food with them which then later developed into restaurants and gave the western world a chance to experience the taste of India.
However, as the diversity of Indians grow in Australia, butter chicken continues to tell the cultural story of India stereotypically rather than giving other parts of Indian food a chance to shine.
Today, butter chicken is seen in cafes and pizzerias in forms of sandwiches and pizzas. Due to its popularity, it has become the western definition of what Indian food is.
Sandeep Pandit, known as The Spice Angel, was a contestant on Masterchef Australia in season 10, and he made a point to not cook butter chicken during his time on the show.
“It's an unfortunate fact, not the one that I'm proud of that butter chicken and CTM (chicken tikka masala) are the only dishes that most of the Australians know us for.”
“I think we have shot ourselves in the foot, I enjoy butter chicken, I think it's great, but I had sworn to myself when I am in Masterchef Australia I will not cook butter chicken,” says Mr. Pandit.
Image: the shirt we wished Sandeep wore on Masterchef Australia
Mr. Pandit says that during the first wave of migration, butter chicken was the dish that was largely accepted by the western world and became an ethnic identity of Indian Cuisine.
“What has happened is that the first wave of migration that happened in the west were from the Punjab region, and those cooks brought their own cuisine.”
“Out of all the dishes, butter chicken is the one dish that people felt will have a larger acceptance, and it did,” says Mr. Pandit.
Mr. Pandit describes the success of butter chicken due to its richness in flavor and its adaptability to the western palette.
“Butter chicken is smokey, its rich, it has loads of spice levels, you can also add sugar to it and make it whatever it wants to be.”
“When the western palette adapted to it, it became such a “Ghisa-Pita” (messy) formula, that everyone that wanted to open a restaurant wanted to have butter chicken.”
“Over a period of time, it became less what Moti-Mahal invented it as and took a detour of an orange glue with lots of cream.”
Image credit: Joe mon bkk
Mr. Pandit believes that there are many other Indian foods out there that deserve the same platform.
“When I had travelled to Maharashtra, I saw the local fisherman cooking lobster, and I understood the flavor profile and I made a version of it in the Masterchef Kitchen.
“There needs to be a movement, where Australians take their thoughts away from butter chicken; yes butter chicken has its own place but it needs to be surrounded by koshimbiri (A Maharashtrian salad) from Maharashtra or a spicy chicken kolhapuri (A spicy chicken curry from regional Maharashtra),” says Mr. Pandit.
Ravneesh Gandhi operates a restaurant in St. Kilda East where the butter Chicken served is a top selling dish.
His restaurant “Southall” is ranked by Broadsheet in top 10 Indian restaurants to visit in Melbourne and he believes butter chicken has been a selling point.
“No matter what we do and what we try, people always come and order butter chicken. It still needs to be made properly, it’s quite a complex process in making it,” said Mr. Gandhi.
Mr. Gandhi does believe that the popularity of butter chicken hurts other cuisines and hinders the creativity in the kitchen.
“There is so much we can go into without even going into fusion, we have not even touched our own country, or the authenticity of our own states.”
“Even simple things like “Litti Chokha” (Bihari dish consisting of balls made of gram flour powder and spices) but we think it would be too humble to put on the menu.”
Mr. Gandhi believes that another problem is also the number of chefs available within Australia and the culinary training they receive.
“Most importantly, the pool of chefs available within Australia is so little and the knowledge base based on the mughlai style, so if anything we are using the history of our food to make reliable recipes.”
“Due to this, and the conditions that we get in operating the kitchen, we have to work within the constraints.”
Mr. Gandhi does however look forward towards indian cuisine progressing and he hopes to see more culture within the food.
“Some dishes are supposed to be extremely acidic or “khatta” (Sour), but when we present it to an Australian market, we will make it less “khatta” and more “meetha” (Sweet) so the locals can eat it.”
“It’s actually interesting, and I would actually love to see Indian food be presented in an authentic way rather than a changed way.”
Image credit: @zhkdesigns
“I think Indian food has alot to provide and hopefully we see more food, even butter chicken when it started was an experiment and it actually started in the UK so Indian food might just be another experiment away,” he added.
Butter chicken has set the standard of what Indian food should be and how it can be accepted into western communities.
We have successful Indian restaurants and also famous chefs, and one of the chefs is only one culinary experiment away from taking the cuisine forward.
The diversity of South Asians is increasing and we need to be open to presenting our culture.
Afterall, Indian food in its essence comes from experimentation and everyone's grandmother having a famous curry recipe.
I believe butter chicken is the start of what a successful Indian product looks like, but it's definitely not the end.
Nishant Kulkarni is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, and a regular contributor to SAARI.