Saturday, February 19, 2011

A brief history of Chicken Tikka Masala

 A short version of this piece is featured in Desiliving

The succulent red creamy chicken with the perfect blend of spices and flavors – also called Chicken Tikka Masala, is my idea of food heaven. I can eat it any day, any time. This dish helps me in times of depression, when I miss India the most, because it ‘almost’ represents everything India is to me. Spicy, colorful, comforting and regal. That’s why I was mortified that the British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, had the audacity to declare ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ as the new national dish of Great Britain. However, the more I read about it (thanks to my weird affliction of finding the history of everything we eat), I realized, that the most popular Indian dish in foreign restaurants might not be Indian after all!

To fathom the extraordinary fable of Chicken Tikka Masala, we should travel to 5000 years ago when tandoor clay ovens were invented. Locals were beginning to raise chickens at the same time and realized both made an awesome combination. But the small bite sized pieces which we now call ‘Tikka’ came into existence- thanks to the nitpicking of an emperor, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in South Asia was so sick (or afraid) of choking on the chicken bones, he ordered his Punjabi chefs to remove the bones before cooking the meat in the tandoor. The resulting delicacy was called – Joleh, Persian for Tikka.

Over the course of time, the recipe was improvised to include marinating the chicken in yogurt and spices. Chicken Tikka became a popular dish with all classes throughout the Mughal empire.

The tale gets puzzling from then on. We are not sure of what the status of Chicken Tikka was during the mutinies and the struggle for independence. It is understandable why nobody really bothered to chronicle what happened to Chicken Tikka while the country was fighting for freedom. During and after the independence movement, the British had exported a lot from their life in India – Curries, bungalows and of course the Kohinoor diamond. Somehow, the tandoor oven didn’t catch their fancy then, and Chicken Tikka just didn’t make the cut. But, in the 1950s there was a flood of immigration from the Indian subcontinent to UK and Indian restaurants mushroomed all over the country.

It is commonly believed that our ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ originated in an Indian restaurants run by Bangladeshi chefs. According to folklore, (trust me, this is an authentic oral tale) a British gentleman sometime in the 1960s, decided his Chicken Tikka was too dry and demanded a better dish. The chef, either out of wild inspiration or final desperation tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, sprinkled some spices and added a dollop of yogurt to the dish. 450 years after Babur’s reign, this hybrid dish came into being in Glasgow and was christened Chicken Tikka Masala.

Some also argue that this is not the real story. They contend Chicken Tikka Masala originated in British India where its spicy  precedent was toned down to suit British palates.They also claim  that Butter Chicken was the first protoype of Chicken Tikka Masala. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham takes an excellent look at the history of Indian food. She has an entire chapter dedicated to Chicken Tikka Masala and writes, according to food critics, that it, “was not a shining example of British multiculturalism but a demonstration of the British facility for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetizing and inedible forms”.

There are several claimants to the honor of having invented chicken tikka masala. The Ali family, owners of Shish Mahal restaurant in Glasgow are one among many. They claim they came up with the creamy, mildly spicy curry in the 1970s to please the Scots, but then it went on to become the most popular dish in British restaurants. But there are vehement rebuttals also- Zaeemuddin Ahmad, a chef at Delhi's Karim Hotel, which was established by the last chef of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, said the recipe had been passed down through the generations in his family. (Ref:Times of India article-Scots lay claim to chicken tikka masala, Indians fume).

Another staggering claim is from the famed MotiMahal restaurent- According to their version-The tandoor, which boosted tikka sales, was introduced to the first Indian restaurant, Moti Mahal in New Delhi in 1948.  Lala Kundan Lal Gujral first set up in Peshawar in 1920 but came to Delhi in 1947 to set up Moti Mahal. He worked with a local man to produce the first restaurant version of the tandoor and invented tandoori spice mix for tandoori chicken -ground coriander seeds, black pepper and mild red pepper. Called Murg Makhani in Hindi, Butter Chicken originated in the 1950s at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi. Famed for its Tandoori Chicken, the cooks there used to recycle the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. This sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces and presto - Butter Chicken was ready! The leftover dish appealed to Delhites and was quickly lapped up by the rest of the world. Moti Mahal had very famous patrons ranging from nehru family to foreign national heads."Legend has it that when former Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev was asked what he liked about India, he replied, ''Taj Mahal and Moti Mahal''. When the Shah of Iran came on a state visit to India, the Indian Education Minister Maulana Azad told him that coming to Delhi without eating at Moti Mahal was like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal.An advertisement in a programme for the London Palladium promoting Cinderella starring Cliff Richard in 1966 by The Gaylord in Mortimer Street featured what was thought to be the first tandoor dishes in Britain. Mahendra Kaul, now involved with Chor Bizarre and Viceroy Brasserie in London, sent ‘the tandoor’ to USA for the World’s Fair a few years earlier before loaning it and his staff to an unamed restaurant of a friend in United Kingdom who was on hard times before installing it in The Gaylord. However, new information from archived documents at the famous Veeraswamy in London show the tandoor was in use at the restaurant as early as 1959, some ten years before it became widely know in Britain.Top restaurateur Amin Ali, owner of The Red Fort and Soho Spice in London’s Soho remembers serving CTM when he first arrived in London in 1974. A lowly waiter at the time he remembers wondering just what the dish was".(Ref: Is it or isnt it?-Chicken tikka story)

Regardless of its mysterious origins – Chicken Tikka Masala, enjoys its special place in the food kingdom. Today, there are more than 50 versions of this dish and the only common ingredient is but of course, chicken. Nearly, 15% of all curries sold in Britain is the Chicken Tikka Masala.Organisers of National Curry Week claim that if all the portions sold in one year in UK were stacked they would constitute a tikka tower 2770 times taller than the Greenwich Millennium Dome.

It is one dish I recommend to anyone who asks me about Indian food. I have never made it at home; but maybe its charm lies in indulging its richness in a restaurant, right where it was born.


1. Rasa Malaysia
2. Lizzie Collingham,Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Oxford University Press, 2006

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