Marks & Spenser
claim to sell 18 tonnes a week of the stuff :
- and yet in an article in The Daily Telegraph in November 1999, journalist Amit Roy referred to it as a dish which does not exist in Indian cuisine. So the question is is it a genuine Indian dish or isnt it?.
The name of this enigma - Chicken Tikka Masala of course. The flagship dish of Britains newly acclaimed national cuisine boasting a huge 14.6% of the sales of the almost half a million curries consumed, on average, in the restaurants and homes of the United Kingdon every day of the year. Chicken Tikka Masala, or CTM as it was affectionately dubbed by writer Colleen Grove in Spice n Easy Magazine in November 1994, is one of those culinary fables that lend a touch of intrigue and excitement to an already exotic cuisine.
The interest in CTM is quite unbelievable and it is estimated that it forms the subject of well over 60% of all enquiries directed at us from the media both in Britain and internationally.
Amit Roy was quite correct to observe that the dish does not hail from India and that it was specifically created to appeal to the British palate by some very astute restaurateurs. This much is not in doubt but when one moves on to the history of the dish, fact becomes fiction and depends on just who one talks to.
No Indian chef seems to have produced any real evidence that he or she first invented the dish and it is commonly thought that its invention came about almost by accident. Journalist and restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab claims it was created when a Bangladeshi chef produced a dish of traditional Chicken Tikka only to be asked wheres my gravy?. The response was, supposedly, a can of cream of tomato soup and a few spices and the masala element was born. Top food writer Charles Campion refers to CTM as a dish invented in London in the Seventies so that the ignorant could have gravy with their chicken tikka. Several chefs have made claim to the invention of CTM but none with any evidence or witness support so the mystery will have to remain. The descendents of Sultan Ahmed Ansari, who owned the Taj Mahal in Glasgow claim he invented it in the 1950s but there is no other evidence of the dish at this early date or of the tandoor in Glasgow.
The tandoor, which boosted tikka sales, had not even
arrived in Britain at that time, having only been introduced to the
first Indian restaurant, Moti Mahal
in New Delhi in 1948. In fact this can be seen as the birth of CTM in
its original form of Butter Chicken. 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.
After Nehru, his daughter and then Prime Minister
Indira Gandhi continued the relationship with Moti Mahal. So
fascinated was she by the food that at the wedding of her younger son
Sanjay Gandhi, Moti Mahal specialties dominated the dinner. Kundan
Lal Gujral, a larger-than-life figure whom people still
remember for his immaculate Pathani suits, handlebar moustache, love
for good whisky and the favours he dispensed because of his proximity
to Indira Gandhi, would personally serve his guests. His wife would
begin each day grinding the masalas, a closely guarded secret, that
went into the signature dishes. His son Monish and grandson Ashim
keep the Moti reputation alive.
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 Worlds 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 Londons 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.
Certainly one family to have tangible benefits from the success of CTM is that of Sheik Abdul Khalique who owns The Polash in Shoeburyness which opened in 1979. His father, Haji Abdul Razzah, returned to Bangladesh in 1985 having made sufficient profit to build The Polash Hotel in Sylhet and a Mosque and The Polash Sheba Charitable Trust were added after his death. The family firmly claim their fortunes are largely down to CTM, the mysterious Indian/British hybrid.
CTM was introduced to Waitrose by G.K.Noon in 1983 when he was still in the United States and by the end of the Millennium it was generally acknowledged as the most popular single dish in Britain.
For something that is so popular with the public and with the restaurateurs who make their living from it, Chicken Tikka Masala is very much a Cinderella of culinary creations. Very few recipes for CTM appear in the plethora of Indian Cuisine cookbooks that have appeared over the last twenty years and Alan Davidsons recent Oxford Companion to Food does not even consider it deserving of a listing. Indeed, such are the passions it generates in the industry, that many top chefs refuse to cook or serve it due to its complete lack of authenticity.
However, exist it does and demanded it is, so just what is Chicken Tikka Masala? Tikkas are the bite-sized chunks you cut chicken into and these are marinated and cooked in the tandoor. The masala part is where things become difficult. Masala means spices but no exact recipe for these seems to exist. CTM can be yellow, red, brownish or even green and can be very creamy, a little creamy, chilli hot or quite mild. In restaurants it tends to be a creamy sauce - not too hot; a bit tomatoey; very smooth and, all too often, quite sweet and very red. In supermarkets, once you have by-passed the masses of CTM pizzas, filled pancakes, kievs, pies, microwave rolls and so on, you come to the chilled and frozen ready meals which range from mild onion gravy to saffron cream to velvety vermillion.
Created on the spur of the moment under pressure it may have been but, as a culinary concept, the dish, if not the name, already existed. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the earliest known recipe for meat in a spicy sauce with a bread appeared on tablets found near Babylon in Mesopotamia, written in cuniform text by the Sumerians from 1700 B.C.
The North Indian dishes Murg Masalla and Murgh Makhni have been part of the Indian chefs repertoire for many years. The Bombay Palace Cookbook by Stendahl in 1985 listed a recipe for Palace Murgh Kari including yoghurt, tomato paste and heavy cream and Niru Guptas Everyday Indian (1995) lists Murgh Rasedar, which includes most of the required ingredients, including cream, tomatoes and onions.
The shape of things to come may have been a recipe for Shahi Chicken Masala in Mrs Balbir Singhs Indian Cookery published in 1961.
Pat Chapman, he of The Curry Club, actually lists the recipe from the Shapnil in The Polash Hotel in Sylhet
Mridula Baljekar is one of the few cookery writers to have included CTM in her bestselling Complete Indian Cookbook (1993) including food colouring and tomato puree as well as double cream and almonds. Chef Mohammed Moneer introduces yet another ingredient with half a cup of coconut milk instead of cream.
It seems that the ingredients generally include yoghurt, tomatoes, cream and spices as well as the chicken pieces and if you have found a version that suits you then stick to it. The Spice n Easy article in 1993 endeavoured to produce the definitive recipe from forty eight versions on offer and came up with a standard version.
Chicken Tikka Masala was most certainly invented in Britain, probably by a Bangaldeshi chef, and is so popular it is even being served in some hotel restaurants in India and Bangladesh.
It does not come from the Raj or the kitchens of the Moghul Emperors, but millions of people enjoy it every year and perhaps that is all the pedigree it needs!