“What?! No Chicken Tikka Masala?? But we’re in India, man!” by Samuel G. Sterling
There has never been so much controversy about a culinary dish, crowned Britain’s National Dish! Its history: ambiguous; its heritage: equivocally more so. It doesn’t date back to the days of the Raj, nor earlier—with its heritage unclear; possibly murky. Some say it originated in Scotland; others claim it to be an Indian variation of ‘Chicken Tikka’ (kebabbed chicken pieces marinated in yogurt and bright red colourants: Red No.2 / Red No.40). Others emphatically state it was the creation of a frustrated Bangladeshi cook— in a state of desperation while finishing a late shift in a back-street restaurant somewhere in Britain. Then, there are the numerous conspiracy theories floating around… but that can be found in the sequel: “POPO GIGI: Shakespeare Goes Bollywood”.
What’s more, there is the further controversy of what is or should be the traditional ‘Mamma’s recipe’ for a perfect ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’. I’m willing to put my neck on the line by saying: No Mamma has ever claimed to have, or been passed down, the recipe for the perfect Chicken Tikka Masala. After dedicated research and various tastings from numerous eateries across the UK—with some still repeating on me—the only consistent ingredient is not the marinade; not the blend of spices; not the way it is meticulously prepared…but the chicken—unless you opt for the veggie option, ‘Paneer Tikka Masala’. Having established this; the rest is a ‘cook and prepare as you wish’ concoction, in varying proportions of tomato paste or purée, long life cream, possibly yogurt, and generous helpings of colourants (typically bright red; preferably from natural sources). Metaphorically speaking, it’s like a classical Indian dancer dressed in a disco outfit performing a Bollywood number—enough said.
So on my last visit to Mumbai, when the original 500 Rupee note was worth its weight in paper, at least, I was invited to dinner at an ‘almost-posh’ restaurant in Colaba. The quality of the cutlery had seriously affected its ratings on various international “Good Food” guides. But neither my host, nor I were there for its battered stainless-steel ware—I don’t think he ever bothered with them before, and I was more concerned with the fastest route to the nearest mūṭhri (toilet). The menu was limited to a couple of “Today’s Specials”—which is always a top-scorer when choosing an eatery. Having been brought up in England with Asian heritage, I was there mainly for two dishes: Samosas and ‘Scotch Broth’. It may sound like a strange cocktail—but, trust me; give it a go…
Anyway, the Samosa’s were of the ‘non-drip’ variety and only fried in limitedly-recycled, quality sunflower oil to a perfect crisp-crackle—with a veggie option available. Scotch Broth, as you may have guessed, is no Indian dish. In India, they use chicken as opposed to ‘scrag end’ (mutton) from Scotland. Understandably, in India, Scotch Broth in its fresh form is difficult to come by—alike in Britain.
We are suddenly disturbed by a party of six or so ‘slurping and burping’ Brits on the adjoining table—drunk as Lords, even by the highest of British standards. Amongst other things, they were having problems ordering: mainly because they couldn’t decipher the menu—presumably due to their drunken state. The waiter, a slim underweight man from South India, politely asks for their orders. They roar their response, almost in unison: “Chicken Tikka Masala brother: times six; twelve portions of poppadum’s, six rice, and don’t forget that mixed chutney tray of yours, mate”. The befuddled waiter shakes his head one way, and then the other—in typical Desi style—then goes deep into thought. After nervously scratching (his head) as if freshly infested with lice, he hesitantly replies: “Sorry sirs, we ONLY not preparing Chicken Tikka Masala”. “WHAT?!” the Brits yell, “NO CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA?? BUT WE’RE IN INDIA, MAN!” followed by a cacophony of burps. In indifference, the kowtowing waiter shuffles along gingerly to seek help from his ‘foreign-returned’ colleagues.
Just to update you on modern British culinary habits… NO Indian restaurant menu is complete without Britain’s ubiquitous National Dish: Chicken Tikka Masala (in one form or another), take my word for it. But Chicken Tikka Masala never originated in India, ipso facto. Of recent, actually, I have been informed by the Culinary Police in India that Chicken Tikka Masala is now being served in a limited number of restaurants across India.
Look, it’s all to do with crossover culture, traditionally, with Britain and India. Look at ‘Mulligatawny soup’: concocted by the British, but in India; to suit their delicate palates. Likewise with ‘Kedgeree’: an Indian dish adapted by the British, laced with curry- powder—for that colonially-indigenous flavour. It has never been a level playing field… after-all, the Brits were the ‘colonial’ masters.
Some strongly feel that this trait still runs in their DNA and is reflected by their contemporary day-to-day conduct, namely: ‘on-stage’ (diplomatically in public); ‘off- stage’ (in the company of their own) and ‘off guard’ (when under the influence of alcohol).
So, cutting back to the main course, Chicken Tikka Masala is now deeply embedded in the British lexicon. More details are revealed in the novel, “POPO GIGI: the earlier years— London to Bollywood”; which also examines the domination of Indian culture in contemporary Britain with food being its key ingredient—consider the interwoven social influences exported back and forth.
So now I ask you this: Has India given more to the British culture than the British have grabbed? The jury is out on CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA!
Written by Samuel G. Sterling
POPO GIGI: the earlier years—London to Bollywood
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