Spice wars

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butter chicken trademark
Butter chicken served at Daryaganj (left) and Moti Mahal (right)
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How a trademark dispute over the invention of an iconic north Indian dish descended into a food fight. By Vandana Chatlani

On a balmy summer’s day in South Mumbai, I stood in a kitchen with my aunt’s cook, Ghanshyam. Carefully arranged on a chopping board in front of us were a few cloves of garlic, some fragrant grated ginger, bright red, juicy tomatoes cut into quarters, a handful of cashew nuts and a few fiery green chillies.

The perfect butter chicken should be “thoda theeka, thoda meetha aur thoda khatta” (a little spicy, a little sweet and a little sour), he explained. Ghanshyam’s recipe is now a staple in my home and constantly requested by my family and friends. How close this version comes to the original recipe, currently being fought over by two restaurant chains – Moti Mahal and Daryaganj – is another question.

Restaurant owners Monish Gujral and Raghav Jaggi – grandsons of two gentlemen, Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi, credited with creating the original butter chicken recipe served in 1947 – will meet in Delhi High Court on 29 May to settle a dispute over who invented the much-beloved dish.

A shared history

But the story begins much earlier; in the 1920s at the original Moti Mahal restaurant run by Mokha Singh Lamba in Peshawar (then part of pre-partition India), where Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi both worked. When partition came in 1947, however, borders were carelessly drawn, Peshawar became part of Pakistan, and Gujral and Jaggi were forced to leave for Delhi.

Gujral and Jaggi struck a partnership with Thakur Das Mago, asking Lamba if they could use the Moti Mahal name to open a restaurant in Delhi. He agreed, and Moti Mahal began serving North Indian fare to patrons in Daryaganj, a neighbourhood in Old Delhi.

From its early days, Moti Mahal’s delicious dishes attracted an illustrious clientele including former Indian prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Indian president Zakir Hussain, Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, US presidents Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy, and the Shah of Iran.

Sid Ahuja

The restaurant gained fame for its tandoori delicacies, particularly its delectable butter chicken.

According to Monish Gujral, the managing director of Moti Mahal Delux, it was his grandfather, Kundan Lal Gujral, who first created this dish back in Peshawar, in the 1920s or 1930s.

Moti Mahal’s story is that Kundan Lal Gujral conceived of the recipe as a means to preserve cooked tandoori chicken which, given a lack of refrigeration technology at that time, had a short shelf life. He invented “the makhani” (makhan is the Hindi word for butter), “a luscious gravy” using “chopped tomatoes, cream, butter and spices”, which would keep the chicken tender. As outlined in the lawsuit, Kundan Lal Gujral would also sometimes add sugar in order to balance the flavours when the tomatoes were too sour.

The version laid out by Daryaganj co-founder Raghav Jaggi is that his grandfather, Kundan Lal Jaggi, came up with the recipe in 1947, following an “experiment” at Moti Mahal’s new avatar in Delhi.

Kundan Lal Jaggi was due to close the restaurant for the day when a group of hungry guests arrived. There was no food in the kitchen aside from a few portions of tandoori chicken.

A Bengali man suggested rustling up a gravy to which the chicken could be added. So Jaggi searched for the ingredients he had on hand and “created a gravy with tomatoes, fresh butter and some spices”. And this, says Daryaganj, is how butter chicken was born.

The jury is still out. Some chefs, such as Hemant Oberoi, Madhusudhan Gupta and Amarjeet Singh Wahi, say Kundan Lal Jaggi deserves recognition for the recipe. Other chefs, like Sanjeev Kapoor, Manish Mehrotra, Vikas Khanna and Ranveer Brar, consider Kundan Lal Gujral to be the mastermind behind the dish.

“Moti Mahal is often accredited with the creation of butter chicken,” says Sid Ahuja, executive chef at Gymkhana, a two-Michelin star, Raj-era themed Indian restaurant in London that serves tandoor oven roasts, sigri charcoal grills and seasonal curries.

Both restaurants claim to be the inventors of the butter chicken recipe in their marketing displays
Both restaurants claim to be the inventors of the butter chicken recipe in their marketing displays

“Founder Kundan Lal Gujral introduced Punjabi and Northern Indian cuisine to the world, soon acquiring landmark status and a legacy that it has retained ever since,” says Ahuja. “Many try to lay claim to the dish’s true origin, though this, to me, is the one that’s been written into the history books.”

The trademark and the tagline

Interestingly, Moti Mahal has not asked the court to decide who invented butter chicken or dal makhani – another dish each party claims should be credited to their respective predecessors. Instead, the lawsuit concerns Daryaganj’s trademark – its restaurant name followed by the tagline: “By the Inventors of Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani”.

The purpose of Moti Mahal’s suit is thus “an attempt to stop Daryaganj from falsely claiming that their predecessor was the inventor of the said dishes, and to stop them from using the tagline,” says Shreya Sethi, the restaurant’s advocate.

“Moti Mahal decided to sue Daryaganj due to their acts of misappropriating Moti Mahal’s business, goodwill and reputation,” says Sethi. Daryaganj has misrepresented the truth, she says.

Daryaganj says that it has every right to use the tagline, particularly given it registered the trademark slogan, which was unopposed, in 2018.

“Our side of the story is that we have a legitimate right to use this expression like they do,” says Dhruv Anand, a partner at Anand and Anand in New Delhi, representing Daryaganj on the case.

“We don’t claim to be using the expression exclusively, and we don’t want to use it exclusively. Daryaganj doesn’t have any objection to Moti Mahal using the same expression.

“At one point, the two parties worked together on a project [at the original Moti Mahal] and both played a role. Then they went their separate ways. Daryaganj is not saying it is the only inventor; it is just one of the inventors. Moti Mahal could use the same tagline, too.”

Kundan Lal Jaggi (left), and Kundan Lal Gujral are credited with creating the original butter chicken recipe served in 1947
Kundan Lal Jaggi (left), and Kundan Lal Gujral are credited with creating the original butter chicken recipe served in 1947
Credit: Kundan Lai Jaggi photo by Amit Bagga. Kundan Lal Gujral photo by Moti Mahal Delux Management Services

Indeed, Moti Mahal uses an almost identical slogan, referring to its restaurant as “The legendary inventors of tandoori chicken, butter chicken and dal makhani” on its website. Back in 2013, Monish Gujral published a cookbook titled On the Butter Chicken Trail: A Moti Mahal Cookbook, with a sticker in the bottom left corner that reads: “From the home of butter chicken”.

Sethi argues that Kundan Lal Gujral “has been globally recognised and identified since the 1920s as the inventor of butter chicken and dal makhani” and that “Moti Mahal is the prior user of the tagline ‘Inventors of Butter Chicken and Dal Makhani’.” This is part of Moti Mahal’s brand identity, and has a rich legacy coupled with long, continuous, widespread and extensive use, he insists. “Any use of the same by any third party amounts to passing off.”

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Questionable timing?

Observers of this case, and butter chicken connoisseurs, may wonder why it took Moti Mahal the best part of five years to file a suit against Daryaganj, which began operations in 2019. Why didn’t Moti Mahal oppose Daryaganj’s trademark registration earlier?

Sethi says Moti Mahal was first triggered in 2019, when the Hindustan Times published an article by veteran journalist Vir Sanghvi headlined: “Rude Food: The battle of the Butter Chickens”.

It was reported there that Kundan Lal Jaggi was the original inventor of butter chicken, explains Sethi. “No such claim of being the inventor of the said dishes was ever made by the late Mr Kundan Lal Jaggi or his descendants during his lifetime,” she says. “The same was made for the first time around 2018-2019 prior to the opening of the Daryaganj restaurant.”

Moti Mahal told Sanghvi its side of the story and “was under the bona fide impression that [Daryaganj] would stop making such false claims”, says Sethi.

But what seems to have irked Moti Mahal the most is Daryaganj’s appearance on the television show Shark Tank India in February 2023. In a 23-minute segment, co-founder Raghav Jaggi, CEO Amit Bagga, and chef and culinary director Gurpreet Singh pitch their restaurant to five potential investors, tugging at emotional heartstrings as they narrate the story of Kundan Lal Jaggi, a refugee from Peshawar who fled to Delhi and created the popular butter chicken and dal makhani recipes.

Shreya Sethi

Invest in us, they urged, to revive Kundan Lal Jaggi’s legacy.

Aman Gupta, one of the sharks, offered Daryaganj INR9 million (USD107,800) for 1% equity in the company.

In its suit, Moti Mahal states that while the claims made by Daryaganj in 2018 and 2019 were “sporadic in nature and limited to online news portals”, the Shark Tank India episode was widely telecast and “viewed by people all over the globe”. The show gave Daryaganj a platform that it used to acquire investments after crediting Kundan Lal Jaggi as the original recipe creator.

“When Daryaganj appeared in the television show Shark Tank India in February 2023, Moti Mahal discovered that their misuse had not stopped and decided to file the lawsuit before Delhi High Court,” says Sethi.

Daryaganj points out in its defence that Moti Mahal has no trademark rights – “registered or otherwise” – relating to the disputed tagline. In fact, the latter applied to register the trademark “Inventor of Original Dal Makhani, Tandoori Chicken and Butter Chicken” on 5 April 2023, two months after the Shark Tank episode had aired. Daryaganj believes Moti Mahal’s trademark application “is an afterthought”, which was made only after learning of Daryaganj’s use.

Legal strategies and commercial gains

Both parties have hurled accusations back and forth.

Moti Mahal has trouble digesting the fact that while Daryaganj says it has no problem with both restaurants claiming their legacy through the same tagline, it appeared to deliberately avoid any mention of Kundan Lal Gujral in its Shark Tank pitch. During the episode, the Daryaganj founders also showed a black and white photo of the original Moti Mahal in Peshawar with the restaurant’s name and logo cropped out.

Daryaganj says it cropped Moti Mahal’s name from the photo “to avoid any nexus with the plaintiffs’ Moti Mahal Delux chain of restaurants”.Moti Mahal is also disturbed by what it says are “striking similarities between the look and feel, colour combination, layout and features” of Daryaganj’s website and restaurants, which it says violates its copyright and trade dress.

However, referencing a digital archive of the World Wide Web, Daryaganj’s lawyers established that it was in fact Moti Mahal that changed its website after Daryaganj had used its own specific design for a certain period of time. “We’ve been able to show this through archival data and a Wayback machine,” says Dhruv Anand.

“There are certain other generic elements over which they have claimed proprietorship, such as floor tiling, which we argue that no one can claim exclusivity over. Daryaganj has a legacy wall in its restaurant, which conveys a story of the restaurant’s heritage and Moti Mahal has tried to copy it.”Dhruv Anand

Raghav Jaggi, meanwhile, says the case put forward by Moti Mahal “is riddled with inconsistencies and lacks a credible cause of action”. For example: The claim that Kundan Lal Gujral set up the first Moti Mahal restaurant in Peshawar, which was owned by Mokha Singh Lamba, says Daryaganj. Kundan Lal Gujral and Kundan Lal Jaggi were both employees, rather than founders, of the restaurant. Moreover, calculations of Kundan Lal Gujral’s age in various places would mean he set up the restaurant when he was seven years old.

Daryaganj is also convinced that Moti Mahal is threatened by its success and innovation. It has, for instance, developed a “five senses box” for deliveries and a “five senses dining experience”, which includes a curated playlist and customised fragrance to evoke the nostalgia of a bygone era.

In terms of revenue, Daryaganj states that within four years, its seven restaurants have generated “approximately 22 times more revenue” than Moti Mahal Delux, which has seven standalone restaurants and more than 100 franchised and company-owned restaurants worldwide.

“The suit is one of business rivalry” filed “with a malafide intent seeing that their own business is not as commercially successful as that of the 53 defendants”, Daryaganj’s lawyers assert in their written statement.

“This suit is misconceived, baseless and lacking cause of action,” says Bagga.

“We believe the truth shall prevail and have unwavering belief in our judiciary, the honourable high court of Delhi,” says Jaggi.

Monish Gujral himself refused to comment for this story saying the matter was sub-judice.

Moti Mahal has filed close to 3,000 documents as part of its 2,752-page lawsuit, including old newspaper clippings, articles from various websites, screenshots featuring Jaggi and Bagga on Shark Tank India, and evidence from India’s Kaun Banega Crorepati (Who Wants to be a Millionaire), where host and veteran Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachan asks a contestant, which famous dish was invented by Kundan Lal Gujral. The correct answer is butter chicken.

Moti Mahal displays the images of famous people who have visited the restaurant over the years (1)
Moti Mahal displays the images of famous people who have visited the restaurant over the years

The length of the suit does not seem to have fazed Daryaganj’s counsel.

“The volume does not matter; the quality of the documents matters,” says Pravin Anand, the managing partner of Anand and Anand in New Delhi. “Some parties who feel they have a weak case try to overwhelm the judge. It’s a psychological move that’s a very primitive approach to litigation. A mature strategy is to limit yourself to filing fewer documents that are stronger in nature so the judge can see all of them, rather than just having a cursory look through them without really understanding their importance.”

Pravin Anand

“What will be interesting is what the plaintiff brings to the table because the burden of proof is on them,” says Pravin Anand. “It’s going to be an uphill battle for them to produce the evidence because you’re talking about something that happened 70 years ago.”

Sethi is confident that Moti Mahal has a strong case because Kundan Lal Gujral’s role in inventing butter chicken and dal makhani “has been well documented since the 1920s by the national and international press, [and] he has also received various awards [for his inventions]”.

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Flavour is everything

As the case proceeds, one might ask, why does identifying the original creator of a recipe matter so much?

“For Daryaganj it’s part of our brand identity and therefore we will absolutely stand for it,” insists Jaggi. “We completely followed the process with regard to our brand. We applied for and registered the trademark. It was granted to us unopposed. As you can appreciate, it’s a process that takes a few years.

“For me, personally, it’s extremely important from the standpoint of preserving our family legacy and bringing back my grandfather’s authenticity and love in his cooking to the world through Daryaganj.”

Interestingly, Moti Mahal finds the use of the restaurant name “Daryaganj” itself to be problematic because it “attempts to create an association, connection or nexus with the plaintiffs’ predecessor”, Moti Mahal Daryaganj. Yet this original establishment in Delhi – a place of historical significance where butter chicken was supposedly invented – apparently has nothing to do with this lawsuit, and in business terms is separate from the Moti Mahal empire run by Monish Gujral.

“To clear any confusion, the current owner of Moti Mahal Daryaganj has said he is not associated with this suit at all”, says Jaggi. “The lawsuit plantiff is the Moti Mahal Delux chain.”

“I’m quite confident that we will at least avoid an injunction against our client at a preliminary stage,” says Dhruv Anand. “Daryaganj is hoping for a complete dismissal of the lawsuit with costs. We will explore whatever remedies are available to us; for example, a summary judgment rather than undergoing a trial.”

Delhi High Court has yet to pronounce its verdict. But at the end of the day, customers, chefs and restaurateurs say taste is what matters most.

“It’s almost impossible to identify the true creator of a recipe, and regardless it matters very little,” says Ahuja, at Gymkhana. “Dishes never remain the same; they evolve from the original recipe, as chefs make the dish their own. Our butter chicken is a key example of this. The taste of the dish will always matter far more than its originality, to both the restaurant and its guests.”

Sethi says the most distinctive element of Moti Mahal’s butter chicken is that “it is cooked over a cumbersome process taking almost 24 hours”.

Jaggi, meanwhile, testifies to the authenticity of Daryaganj’s butter chicken by calling it “the OG [original gangster]”.

According to Ahuja, “the secret to a good butter chicken is a real balance of flavours. Every bite must satisfy all the elements of taste – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and smoky.”

Telephoned in Mumbai and asked if he was aware of the dispute, or knows who first invented butter chicken, my aunt’s cook, Ghanshyam, whose recipe is still held dearest, would only say: “Hum ko nahin malum … hum ko koi farakh nahin padta hai, (I have no idea and it makes no difference to me). Hum apne aap ko dekhta hoon (I just focus on myself)”.

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