There are many stories about its origin, but the most popular one links it to Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah, who was the wazir or ruler of Oudh/Awadh during the late 1700s. In 1784, during the great famine, the Nawab introduced a charitable initiative for his people with a food-for-work programme. He wanted to construct a Moghul architectural marvel – the Bara Imambara, which was one among the many structures that the Nawab planned to build in the city. Many people volunteered for the initiative, and to feed the masses through day and night, the cooks employed the method of dum pukht, wherein meat, vegetables, rice, and spices were put together in large vessels or handis, sealed with dough and left to slow cook for hours. This system of cooking proved to be the most convenient method to provide meals to a large number of workers as well as make for them a flavorsome meal without using excessive spices, which were in short supply then.

It was on one such day when a pot was left to slow cook that the delightful aroma from the dish caught the Nawab off guard and he at once ordered his shahi cooks to make the same dish in the royal kitchen. The master chefs employed the same technique of dum pukht along with royal finesse and thus started a whole new kind of preparation, which soon became immensely popular in the courts and among the upper class as more refinements were introduced. It was later adopted by royal kitchens in Hyderabad, Kashmir, Bhopal, and other regions as well.