After the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, a young chef brought the tandoor oven and his tandoori chicken from Peshawar to a new restaurant he opened in Delhi, the Moti Mahal. There, he created makkhani murghi, butter chicken; tandoori chicken in a sauce that combines tomatoes, butter and cream.
Seventy years later, the internet was overrun by a recipe for an “easy, authentic, creamy, spicy, and delicious” version of the “traditional Indian restaurant dish”. Urvashi Pitre, who created that recipe, shot to fame and a book deal as the Butter Chicken Lady.
The rise of the Butter Chicken Lady fascinated Sucharita Kenjilal, a PhD student at UCLA. Butter chicken is comparatively recent. Tomatoes, a key ingredient in the dish, were adopted very late in India. And the whole notion of recipes is also a relatively recent phenomenon in India. What, she wondered, could tomatoes in Indian recipes say about how new tastes are created.
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