Midnight’s chicken: Indian food evolution Insights into new recipes and new ingredients

Sign above the door of original Moti Mahal restaurant in New Delhi

Podcast cover artworkAfter the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, a 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 Kanjilal, 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.


  1. Sucharita Kanjilal’s paper — Beyond Bourdieu: What Tomatoes in Indian Recipes Tell Us about “Taste” — is published in Gastronomica (2021) 21(3) 1–12. There is a lot more in the paper than we were able to cover here.
  2. Here is the transcript.

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