In 2001, the most famous Indian dish in foreign restaurants, chicken tikka masala, was declared as the “National Dish of Britain” by British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. However, this delicious dish is not entirely Indian after all, as some theories point towards its British-Bangladeshi origin. The invention of this dish, along with many controversial theories, is related to the invention of tandoor clay ovens around 5000 years ago. At that time, people realized that cooking chicken in these tandoors altered the taste to a great extent.
However, the existence of small square chicken pieces without bones that we call tikka today is related to Mughal Emperor Babur. The tale says that Babur was afraid of choking on the chicken bones and so he ordered his chefs to remove the bones before putting the chicken in tandoor. Sure, the request may high maintenance, but his paranoia did usher in a new way of preparing chicken!
Then during the rule of British on India, the British took great interest in exploring the diverse lifestyle of this multicultural country. Various spices of Indian origin were being imported to the UK due to the British love of the spices’ exotic aroma and flavor profiles. These ingredients were responsible for the hybrid dishes with Anglo-Indian taste. One such recipe was “curry” which gained popularity in Britain.
In 1950, a vast number of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis immigrated to the United Kingdom and opened restaurants serving tandoori food all over the country. A universal tale states that around the late 1960’s, a British gentleman in Glasgow, Scotland, while having a meal in an Indian restaurant run by Bangladeshi Chefs, complained that his chicken tikka was too dry for his taste and demanded some alterations in the traditional recipe. The chef then took the dry chicken tikka back into the kitchen and tossed it into canned tomato soup and yogurt and presented it with some Indian spices. He was instantly impressed with the newly presented dish. Thus, this hybrid dish which suited the British taste buds perfectly was named as chicken tikka masala.
This accidental invention became so popular with British people that the restaurant owner actually had to alter his original menu to add this makeshift dish. The only difference was that he started adding fresh tomatoes with cream in place of canned tomato soup.
Some food experts argue that this tale is not authentic and believe that this dish originated in British India where its spicy precedent was toned down with cream to better suit British palletes. Regardless of its unsolved origin mystery, chicken tikka masala has been ruling the food kingdom ever since its existence. Moreover, the recipe varies from place to place; the curry can be orange, red and even green and the taste also varies from spicy hot to mild creamy.
As the British power grew in India, the influence was felt on both sides. Indians living in the UK at first were from naval shipping backgrounds or were brought to London as servants by East India Company. Indians have altered the food culture of Britain, and it started with the opening of the first Indian restaurant in London, more than 100 years ago. For example, London’s oldest surviving Indian restaurant Veeraswamy has been around since 1926; but it didn’t serve typical Indian food. The British customers were served a version of Indian food, which was comparatively less spicy. However, when Mathrani bought the restaurant in 1997, his sole mission was to serve real and authentic Indian food that is actually found in Indian homes.
The main reason behind the popularity of Indian food all around the globe is the intoxicating aroma along with spices mixture. Indian dishes cover around six tastes – spicy, sweet, sour, salty, sharp and bitter and the dishes try to balance each of these flavors. Some of the common Indian spices have numerous health benefits which attracted the British to adopt their cuisine. London has more Indian restaurants than Mumbai, and the majority of the owners are of Bangladeshi origin. In Glasgow, the majority of ownership comes from Punjabis. Currently, the visitors can spot at least two Indian restaurants walking down a street in Britain! With desi cuisine having such a stronghold on the collective British appetite, it only makes sense then that it is an Indian tasting dish, chicken tikka masala, that has secured its status as the national dish!