This account is based on the recollections of a meal taken during the summer of 2006.
We were standing outside Kake Da Hotel at Connaught Place in New Delhi. Moaned over by food critics, the legendary eatery – its name implying ‘Uncle’s Restaurant’ in Punjabi – is supposed to be a carnivore's delight. Amateur gourmands drive great distances to feast on its celebrated Butter Chicken.
But Kake Da Hotel was a mere shack beside a smoggy highway. Worse, it was summer and the restaurant was full so we had to wait and perspire outside with many others.
A bearded man at the entrance, likely to be the Kake's version of a maitre d'hotel, was assigning numbers to the waiting diners. He would call out the number each time a table was cleared. While expecting to be summoned inside any minute, we dwelled on the mythical history of this gastronomical landmark. It was said to have been founded by a Sikh gentleman who had migrated to Delhi after the Indian partition in 1947.
With no disrespect to the refugee's entrepreneurial skills, we refused to be impressed. The eatery, with its cement floor, shabby door, and plastic chairs, was not a pretty place for a languid dinner. Just then the maitre d'hotel furiously gesticulated at us to walk in.
That Sinking Feeling
It was an unsettling sight. Our table top displayed remnants of a freshly dug graveyard. Chicken thighs, sucked out of all the flesh, were lying like ignored skeletons on jungle roads. The body language of the waiters warned the diners to eat, slurp, and be swiftly done. We shifted uncertainly on our chairs when an old steward flung a menu on the table. We guiltily pointed at the bones. He swapped a dirty cloth over the table and lo, the bones were down under!
Shocked but not awed, we tried to focus our attention on the laminated menu card, yellowed with old curry stains. There was no need to mull, however. Both of us simultaneously said Butter Chicken. It was the signature dish after all! We ordered it with Palak Paneer and Naan-bread. The steward demanded just how many naans we have in mind. After an exchange of glances we promised to let him know; once done with the first one. He shrugged his shoulders and disappeared.
A prolonged wait was undesirable. It was hot. The exhausted fan was moving reluctantly with great sounds of fatigue. A tandoor furnace glowed red not far from us. A cook was turning rotis in it with large iron tongs. His sweat occasionally dripped from his eyebrows onto the deep pit of the tandoor. It was displeasing to watch and we turned away – only to see a steward, his fingers dipping down into the water jug!
We made a face and tried to think of the dish we were looking forward to.
Called Murg Makhani in Hindi, Butter Chicken originated in the 1950s at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi. Famed for its Tandoori Chicken, the cooks there used to recycle the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. This sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces and presto – Butter Chicken was ready! The leftover dish appealed to Delhites and was quickly lapped up by the rest of the world.
Today it is difficult to imagine Delhi's cultural heritage without this rich delicacy. If the people of this city are sometimes called fat, aggressive, and lascivious, then Butter Chicken must share a part of the blame.
The steward finally banged the dishes down on the table. The violence splashed the gravies. As we picked the chicken legs with our fingers and licked the flesh, we knew we had just stepped into a new and difficult adventure. The first sensation was jolting – as if gallons of butter had flooded inside the mouth. The tongue became as slimy as crude oil. The hollow cavity of the rotting tooth was choked with a thick coating of butter.
To reclaim sobriety, we quickly tore a bite of the naan, ducked in a scoop-full of Palak gravy and gulped it in. The green juice managed to clean the greasy goo. However the gravy, thickened with dozens of spices, seared our throat on its way down. Fortunately, the spinach's mild flavor lingered behind and calmed the agitated nerves. We then paused to contemplate a second attack on the chicken.
This time the butter in the chicken felt familiar. We chomped at the flesh. It was soft — too soft. The creamy flavor of the over-done bird made us feel heavy. It helped to have a steel bowl filled with onion rings, sprinkled over with salt and lemon juice. Their unmolested rawness was a desirable follow-up to every bite of chicken we ate. In fact a moment came when we felt that the humble onions were the best part of the meal.
There was more disappointment. The Paneer (cottage cheese), floating languidly in the green gravy, sent confusing signals. It was slightly undercooked – chewy and bland – and failed to absorb the bouquet of Palak leaves. The heat of the spices, too prominent in the gravy, was missing. Did the lazy cook add the cheese cubes too late?
As the dinner progressed, the discomfort caused by the appalling state of the eatery, the humid heat of the evening, and the attitude of the steward could not be overcome by the meal. Nearing the end, the rude man re-emerged to enquire for a second helping. Deeply unsatisfied, we requested the bill instead.
Once out and at a safe distance away, the companion hesitatingly confessed to have witnessed our steward picking his nose.