Until about a week ago, Team GB had all but struck-out in the medal department at their home Olympics. Fast forward half a fortnight, and their 16 golds places them third on the overall list, as well as garnering them today’s national dish highlight at ETW – chicken tikka masala. Wikipedia offers this succinct definition: “Chicken tikka masala is chicken tikka, chunks of chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, that is then baked in a tandoor oven, [and] served in a masala (‘mixture of spices’) sauce.” The recipes variations are as wide-ranging as its origin histories, but nothing obscures its popularity. Recently Robin Cook, the British Foreign Secretary, declared chicken tikka masala as the new national dish of the United Kingdom. Today, 1 in 7 of all curries sold in Britain are tikka masala, and it is the most popular restaurant dish in the country. But while tikka masala is unquestionably popular in Britain, and has been declared the national dish, its transnational origins reveal a fascinatingly complex and controversial history.
Tandoor clay ovens, today a mainstay of the types of Indian cooking popular in Europe and the United States, were actually invented over 5,000 years ago, raising in popularity alongside the rise of chicken domestication on the Indian subcontinent. ‘Tikka’ itself refers to a specific way of cutting chicken into bit-size squares prior to cooking the meat in the tandoor over. This style was supposedly invented by the first Mughal emperor, Babur, who is rumored to have been so afraid of choking on chicken bones he ordered his chefs to remove them. Thus, by the beginning of the Mughal Dynasty around 1500, everything was already in place for chicken tikka masala. There are some, then, who insist that tikka masala in its current form is thus a Mughal dish: for example, Zaeemuddin Ahmad, chef at the Karim Hotel in Delhi, claims that the recipe for tikka masala has been passed down through generations of his family, originating during the reign of Bahadur Shah II (1837-1857).
Bahadur Shah II was deposed by the British in 1858, ushering in an era of British rule, and launching a colonial era that saw, as the writer at Food Detective’s Diary so eloquently stated, Britons raid India of “Curries, bungalows and of course the Kohinoor diamond.” But among the spoils of colonialism was not, it appears, tikka masala: the dish did not appear in British restaurants until the 1960s, following a wave of Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi immigration to Britain following the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1949.
Exactly how, where, and when tikka masala’s current form first appeared is a matter of heated debate. The bases for the dish, it seems, pretty clearly date back to the Mughal period. The rich masala sauce that forms the heart of the dish may have been developed in India, perhaps to suit the changing palettes of an increasingly multicultural clientele: Rahul Verma, one of India’s most authoritative street food experts, claims he first tasted the dish in Punjab in 1971, arguing that its origins probably lie 4o or 50 years earlier in the same region, borne of an accidental discovery that has been periodically updated and improvised.
When tikka appears in Britain, it seems to do to cater to native British palettes. For a great history of tikka masala, we highly recommend Lizzie Collingham’s work in Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, where she argues that, contrary to historians who situate tikka masala as proof of Britain’s multiculturalism, it in fact “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.”
Ahmed Aslam Ali, owner and operator of the Shish Mahal Restaurant in Glasgow, would appear to agree with Collingham’s history. In 2009, Ali, along with a group of Scottish MPs, petitioned the European Union to officially recognize chicken tikka masala through a “Protected Designation of Origin” in Glasgow (much like Parma’s Parmesan cheese). Ali claims to have invented the dish at his restaurant in the early 1970s, stating, “We used to make chicken tikka and one day a customer said ‘I’d take some sauce with that, this is a bit dry’ so we cooked chicken tikka with the sauce which contains yoghurt, cream, spices.” This story has become part of the tikka masala legend, often repeated as the a-ha moment in the history of the dish.
True or not, the exchange Ali claims is a metaphor for the dish’s history. A clash of cultural palettes in the colonizer’s land, with a demand to adapt cuisine to suit other tastes. In the face of the pressure, the dish had no choice but to reinvent itself, and with a small change went from a complex dish formed through millennia of Indian history to the national cuisine of Britain. The singular moment of creation is a common trope in histories like this. True or not, Ali’s story has appeal, but for us, the tikka masala’s complex transnational history, formed through millennia across two continents, is just another illustration of why we love food so much.
Happy eating, Britain!