Why chicken tikka masala is not just any dish

Why chicken tikka masala is not just any dish

Earlier this week, Ali Ahmed Aslam, a chef from Glasgow, Scotland, who is credited with inventing perhaps the most famous Indian dish after butter chicken, the chicken tikka masala, passed away at the age of 77. According to reports in the Guardian, his passing away was announced by his Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow, which closed for 48 hours as a mark of respect. The eatery announced: “Hey, Shish Snobs … Mr Ali passed away this morning … We are all absolutely devastated and heartbroken.”

Chef Aslam's origins go back to Pakistan though he moved with his family to Glasgow when he was very young and then, later on, opened his now-famous restaurant Shish Mahal in Glasgow’s west end in 1964.

For most of us, it is just a dish that we see on the menu of most restaurants in India or all over the world. But then for die-hard fans, chicken tikka masala is not just a dish or for that matter, any dish! It is a symbol that not only typifies its country of origin, India but also a mark of diversity and multicultural influences that colour the world we live in today. 

In most countries and especially the UK, which has a sizable Indian population, chicken tikka masala has a huge fan following with natives outnumbering Indians in their love for this dish that is made with marinated chunks of chicken in a simmering tomato sauce gravy. In fact, in 2001, Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary gave his so-called 'çhicken tikka' speech that was hailed as celebrating the UK's multi-ethnicity.

Chicken tikka masala, said Cook in his speech, as reported by the Guardian,"is now a true British national dish not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences." A dry Indian dish adapted with sauce "to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy". 

Where did this dish originate?

The origins of this dish which is now said to be the UK's national dish, and is almost 40 to 50 years old, vary with some sources saying it originated in Punjab during 1971 and others pegging its origins to the Glasgow chef, Ali Ahmed Aslam. 

The story started in the 1970s when a grumbling customer told Chef Aslam, that his chicken was too dry and insisted that it be customised with some gravy. The chef then decided to add some tomato sauce, and some extra masala and let it simmer for a while, according to AFP reports. Back at the table, the customer liked this new dish so much that he kept coming back for more and since then the chicken tikka masala has had a cult following, as the story goes!

For those who still haven't tried it yet, chicken tikka masala is made by marinated boneless chicken pieces that are cooked in a tandoor and then served in a creamy tomato sauce. Since it is so popular in the UK, it is a staple menu item in most restaurants there, especially in London in the East End restaurants along Brick Lane, known as “Curry Mile.”

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Controversy abounds

In the year 2009, though the bid was not successful, the then Labour MP Mohammad Sarwar put forth a motion in the House of Commons requesting that Parliament should legally recognize Glasgow as the home of chicken tikka masala. Though officially that never happened, Chicken Tikka surreptitiously dunked itself into the culture and food habits of British people who identified India with this dish and it outsold all other Indian dishes, from then, till now. 

Closer home in India, we have the origins attributed to the founder of the Moti Mahal restaurant, headquartered in Delhi, the late Kundan Lal Gujral, who is said to have discovered 'tandoor' cooking or the slow cooking methods by charcoal in a clay oven. 

Also, in their book, Flavours of History, food historians and authors Peter and Colleen Grove while discussing the various theories that abound about the origins of the chicken tikka masala suggest that it could have also originated from a famous recipe of another chef, Mrs. Balbir Singh whose book Indian Cookery published in 1961 contains her recipe similar to chicken tikka.

And the story goes on.

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