Did you know that International Chicken Tikka Masala Day is celebrated on May 7? Did you also know it is claimed to be Britain’s national dish? The story of its origin continues to be deliciously controversial as British, Scottish and Indians claim it to be their own. Although, there are many versions of the story as to who really owns chicken tikka masala, the anecdotal explanation is not satisfactory enough for a clear decision leaving a hung jury in this case. Since chicken tikka masala has become the most popular of Indian cuisine in America (and we sell a fair bit of it!) I felt a sense of responsibility to do my part in researching its origin.
The most widely accepted story in the west is that chicken tikka masala originated in a tiny Indian restaurant called “Shish Mahal” owned by Ali Ahmad Aslam in Glasgow. A British gentleman walked into Shish Mahal and ordered chicken tikka. He received a dish which was dry pieces of chicken marinated in spices and cooked in a tandoor (an upright version of a wood burning oven). He sent the dish back saying it was too dry and needed gravy. He said, “British need gravy on chicken or meat to enjoy it.” The waiter ran back in the kitchen and the resourceful owner made a sauce by mixing a can of Campbell tomato soup, yogurt, cream and some spices to produce the ubiquitous dish called chicken tikka masala. The story is so convincing that they call it their national dish and recently Glasgow proposed to formalize the status of the birth place of chicken tikka masala in the recent parliamentary elections. Like all anecdotal stories, this story continues to evolve and the popularity of chicken tikka masala continues to grow. In my mind, this would be the first fusion dish by combining Indian and British flavors.
What exactly is chicken tikka masala? It is certain that chicken tikka is an Indian dish for which pieces of chicken usually called “tikka” are marinated in a blend of yogurt and spices and cooked in a tandoor. It is the “masala” part of the dish that has an ambiguous story. According to Moti Mahal, one of the most popular restaurants in New Delhi and the place where the famous butter chicken was born, chicken tikka masala is simply a derivative of butter chicken. The owner was once asked to cook butter chicken at the British council in Delhi and the British director at the time was truly amazed as to how much the taste of butter chicken resembled chicken tikka masala. The owner of Moti Mahal remembers vividly the comment “the bird has truly migrated,” the “masala” portion of the name is indicative of the sauce added to the cooked pieces of chicken and therefore, chicken tikka masala was born.
Chicken tikka masala has become the national dish of Britain and according to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook-chicken tikka masala is a symbol of multicultural Britain. According to Mark Hay, a freelance food writer, it is not surprising because 25 million portions of chicken tikka masala are served per year in Britain and 65,000 people are employed cooking and serving it.
A famous food expert in India claims that this dish was first prepared in Punjab about 40-50 years ago but the story is not half as interesting as its origin in Glasgow but the research continues. Until the world finds a proof of its true origin I urge everyone to enjoy, share and try chicken tikka masala if you have never had the pleasure to relish the succulent creamy dish.
Chicken tikka masala must be one of the most delicious culinary gifts to the world that two countries geographically and culturally so different claim to be their own.