A Viennese cake may have lessons for butter chicken

An iconic dish from a famous hotel. A rival establishment claiming to make the original. And a legal tussle that lasts years till it reaches the country’s supreme court. This isn’t – yet – the butter chicken battle between Moti Mahal and Daryaganj restaurants, but an oddly similar culinary court case that began 90 years ago in Vienna.

Sachertorte is a dense chocolate cake layered with tangy apricot jam and enrobed in thick chocolate icing. It is named for Franz Sacher, a pastry chef who worked for Prince Metternich, the Austrian statesman who dominated early 19th-century European politics. Sacher’s son Eduard, who would be instrumental in promoting the cake, claimed his father invented it in 1832 which “earned him much praise from the prince.”

This type of kitchen eureka moment is key to these culinary battles because it ties the recipe to the genius of one person. In Monish Gujral’s book Moti Mahal’s Tandoori Trail, he tells a similar story of his grandfather, Kundan Lal Gujral inventing tandoori chicken when “his master, Mukha Singh, requested a light and dry chicken dish for dinner.” The elder Gujral marinated chicken in yoghurt and spices, took an iron wire used for hanging clothes to dry, skewered the chicken and put it in the tandoor oven to cook.

In 1876, Eduard Sacher opened a luxury hotel in Vienna where his father’s cake was a prime offering. By 1888, Eduard could boast that 200-400 were made each day: “Our Sachertortes go to Paris, Berlin, London and even overseas.” The hotel’s success continued after his death in 1892, but it fell on hard days after the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the First World War.

In 1934, Eduard’s son, also named Eduard, declared bankruptcy and sold the hotel. Crucially, he felt that the original Sachertorte recipe was not part of this deal, and sold it to Demel’s, an even older confectioner (where his father apprenticed before opening the hotel). Demel’s started selling its cake as the original Sachertorte – and were promptly sued by the new owners of Hotel Sacher.

The butter chicken saga also has confusingly similar names. Kundan Lal Jaggi worked with Kundan Lal Gujral at Moti Mahal, possibly even more closely with the kitchen, while Gujral was the public face of the restaurant. In recent years Mohit Gujral has worked to reclaim his grandfather’s legacy, while Kundan Lal Jaggi’s grandson Raghav Jaggi launched the Daryaganj chain of restaurants, with the claim that it was from the inventors of butter chicken which lead to the lawsuit from the Gujrals.

One complication in the Sachertorte case was that at some point, the hotel modified its recipe so that the cake was sliced in two, the layers sandwiched with apricot jam, and the whole covered with chocolate. Demel’s made the simpler earlier version, with jam on top and chocolate over it all. (The butter chicken battle has not yet invoked recipes). This, combined with the younger Eduard’s involvement seemed to bolster Demel’s claim.

But in September 1939, just as the Nazis were consolidating their hold over Austria, the courts supported Hotel Sacher’s claim, simply on the basis of ownership of the name. Demel’s wasn’t daunted and, in the 1950s, once the distraction of World War Two was over, it raised its claim again, and this time the battle went all the way to the Austrian Supreme Court, with both sides providing many historical experts and chefs.

Michael Krondl in his book Sweet Invention: the History of Dessert, writes that “the court made the Solomonic decision that, although the cake originally sold at the Hotel Sacher had indeed had only one layer… the hotel had the right to keep calling their version the ‘original’.” This neatly affirmed the authenticity of Demel’s version, while keeping “Original Sacher-Torte” for the hotel. Both places now sell lots of Sachertortes, as do other Vienna cafes.

But Krondl draws attention to an interview that Franz Sacher himself gave in 1906, when he was 90 years old. Instead of any genius moment before Metternich, the eldest Sacher said he left his employment early and developed the recipe while running the restaurant in a casino in Bratislava and doing other catering jobs. The value of the cake was that it stayed good for days: “the jammy undergarment in combination with the fudgy glaze keeps the famed cake moist for weeks without refrigeration,” writes Krondl.

This was obviously of value to a caterer, who could make it in advance, rather than a court cook, who had the luxury of last-minute cooking. It also explains the younger Sacher’s boast of exporting cakes – unlike most Viennese patisserie, which lavishes perishable whipped cream, chocolate-cased Sachertortes could withstand travel, and build their reputation far from Vienna itself.

It is a reminder that cooking is a practical art, and that more than individual moments of genius, it is the realities of ingredients and kitchen procedures that tend to dictate how recipes evolve. There are hints of this in the Moti Mahal story. Gujral’s reuse of leftover tandoori chicken to make butter chicken is held up as a genius moment of improvisation, but it is standard kitchen practice to reuse foods, like boiling bones and peelings into soup stock.

Monish Gujral’s book also gives an interesting insight into how Dal Makhani, another disputed recipe, acquired its distinctive texture and taste. In an era before pressure cookers making dals required long slow cooking, so his grandfather kick-started the process by using the residual heat from the cooling tandoors: “Kundan Lal started putting dal soaked in water overnight in the tandoor, so that by morning the dal was soft and partially cooked.” This pre-cooking might explain how the mixed dals – urad, rajma and channa dal in the recipe in Gujral’s book – disintegrated during final cooking to give a creamy texture, while also picking up a smokey note.

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