Butter Chicken Legal Wrangle

25th January 2023

Butter chicken (Murgh Makhani), one of India’s best-known dishes and a global favourite, is at the centre of an extraordinary curry war in India. Two rival restaurant chains are seeking a legal ruling over who invented the recipe for the signature dish. The dispute has gone national in India, with television stations covering the story and widespread debate across social media.

A 2,572-page lawsuit was brought by the Gujral family who run Moti Mahal, a renowned Delhi restaurant that counts India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as former US president Richard Nixon, among famous customers. The family claim that their grandfather, Kundan Lal Gujral, invented the curry in the 1930s when he opened his restaurant in Peshawar, in what is now Pakistan. They say the original was created by their grandfather to use up leftover tandoor chicken. After India split during partition in 1947, the restaurant moved to Delhi. As well as seeking rights to the grand title of butter chicken inventor, the Gujral family is seeking £188,000 in damages.

A counter claim to inventing butter chicken comes from the Daryaganj restaurant family. It mainatains that a late relative, Kundan Lal Jaggi, worked with Gujral to open the  Delhi restaurant in 1947, and that it was there that butter chicken was first created. This, they insist, gives them the right to describe their restaurant as home to the first serving of the dish, a right they claim to have trademarked in 2018.

The bizarre legal battle has piqued the interest of millions of ordinary Indians. It is a culinary mystery set in a series of curry houses, ranging from Pakistan to India, with a lengthy cast list of characters, many now dead, with conflicting accounts of what took place.

The search is on for the crucial witness testimony of someone who can somehow link the butter chicken name to a dish they consumed decades earlier. However, the case rests on what is circumstantial evidence at best.

The next hearing has been scheduled to take place in May. Given the snail’s pace of India’s courts, the feuding restaurant families may have to wait some time for a decision. The legal dispute verges on the ridiculous, yet highlights just how many Indians from all walks of life are caught up in – or eager to resort to – litigation, even in the most minor disputes.

India has an estimated 50 million cases pending in the  lower courts, highlighting the huge backlog in the system. The backlog has doubled over the past two decades, and at the current pace it would take more than 300 years to clear. There is a shortage of judges, with roughly 20 judges per million of population. Thousands of non-judicial staff positions in the courts remained unfilled, and lengthy delays to court proceedings are a regular occurrence. No one should hold their breath that a verdict in the butter chicken dispute will be handed down any time soon.

Indians have become accustomed to the lengthy wait for justice. It is a little like ordering a curry in a very busy restaurant: it never quite arrives because the place is chronically under-staffed and jam-packed with customers who have been waiting even longer.