To the non-Brit, claiming a Curry from the sub-continent to be one of the our national dishes might seem absurd. Although then foreign secretary Robin Cook designated it just that in 2001.
After all Britain wasn’t known for adopting the customs and cultures of its colonial subjects. But chicken tikka masala is British, or so it’s claimed. As British as well- spaghetti bolognese, much to the despair of all Italians I’m sure
The mildly spiced creamy chicken dish is claimed to be the product of a post-war British curry house. Glasgow MP Mohammad Sarwar, a former state governor in Pakistan put forward a motion to Parliament in an attempt to gain EU protected geographical status for the dish. This of course nothing to do with the fact one of his constituents claimed to be owner of the 1970s Glasgow curry house from which the dish originated.
Indeed for chicken tikka masala to have emerged from the small business of a commonwealth immigrant fits wonderfully into the nations warm and fuzzy notion of the empire many would have us believe. The former colonial subject serving up food to the British now seen as adopting the British entrepreneurial spirit.
Enough of the political posturing. Where did this food truly come from. Tikka’d chicken certainly did not emerge from 1970s Glasgow.
A Mughal marinade created in the midst of time in a more romanisticed mythical age of Indian history even than Imperial India in a 1960’s school book. A time of maharajas and emperors. Tikka’d chicken was deliberately boneless to save the emperors the chore of picking meat apart, marinated in various spices and yoghurt, in an attempt to mask the flavours of often bad meat.
The masala element comes from its combining with a more creamy and tomatoey sauce infused with more typically Indian spices. Although definitely far milder than anything traditionally served in India. This is another string in the British claimants bow, for no matter what Dave down the pub might say, Britain as a nation cannot handle its spice like the Indians.
Mr Ali, the Glaswegian restaurateur used this notion in his creation story. Claiming a man ordered chicken tikka in his restaurant and complained it was to dry and spicy. Mr Ali, or so the story goes was eating some tomato soup and instructed his chef to throw some in with a few spices. And so the nations favourite dish was allegedly born, the result of a man and a nations incapacity for authentic Indian food.
This notion of the chicken tikka masala being a dumbed down version of South-Asian food and not a cultural export or even fusion has been lent support by historian Lizzie Cunningham, in her aptly named book Curry: A tale of cooks and conquerors.
The claim of British origin however is quickly dismissed by many eminent Indian academics who, instead claim the dish emerged in the fledgling restaurants of New Delhi after independence, attempting to cater for a more international and cosmopolitan palate. Again however dumbing down the original Indian recipe.
Like with many of the foods that have been covered in this series the true genesis of the chicken tikka masala is merely semantics for politicians to bicker over. What we do know is that its cultural impact on Britain has been immense.
Whether it emerged in Glasgow, Delhi or even Birmingham as some claim, it does not matter. That chicken tikka masala is now as much a part of the nations cuisine as fish and chips or a full english. Maybe this is indicative of at least partial success of a post-imperial multi-cultural Britain. If the Glaswegian founding myth is true then it is testament to the success of a mix of Indian British culture, a reason no doubt that politicians champion it.
For 200 years Brits back home roundly ignored so many cultural delights of its empire, now it is beginning to adopt and celebrate them. I for one am glad of this. Indeed I’d rather have a curry than fish and chips.