Chicken tikka masala now conquering French palates

  • Prasun Sonwalkar, Hindustan Times, London
  • Updated: Nov 02, 2014 09:43 IST

It may have Indian origins, but ‘chicken tikka masala’ is an outright British invention that has become a ‘national dish’ here, but now there are signs that the deliciously tingling dish is exciting the discerning French palate that is used to traditional food culture.

‘Chicken tikka masala’, or better known as CTM in Britain, is reputed to have been invented in 1971 by a cook in Glasgow after a customer complained that his chicken dish was dry. The cook simply poured tomato soup into the dish with some spices, the customer loved it, and CTM was born.

Since then, CTM has been endowed with the status of a ‘national dish’ by the former Foreign secretary Robin Cook in 2001, a status happily endorsed by many other leading lights since.

Now reports from Paris say that CTM has emerged as the hottest selling item in retailer Marks & Spencer as it cashes in on the growing French demand for convenience food. It has 10 stores in Paris selling food, and plans to double the number by 2016

Jill Bruce, head of international food with Marks & Spencer, told The Guardian: “Chicken tikka masala is our top selling ready meal in Paris.” The retailer’s Beaugrenelle store near the Eiffel Tower reportedly sells more than 70,000 Indian takeaway meal boxes a year.

Another British dish inspired by Indian sub-continental cuisine that is going places is ‘Birmingham Balti’, which is currently seeking TSG status (traditional speciality guaranteed) from the European Commission, which will give it legal protection against imitation throughout the EU.

Moved by the Birmingham Balti Association (BBA), the application defines ‘Birmingham Balti’ as “a fast cooked curry dish which can be made using chicken, fish, meat or vegetables. The Birmingham Balti is cooked and served in a thin steel wok-shaped bowl called the balti, from which the dish gets its name”.

The history of 'Birmingham Balti' goes back to the 1970s, when people from Mirpur in Pakistan displaced by the Mangla Dam project migrated here, and brought with them their traditional method of cooking: slow cooking meat on the bone (chicken, lamb and beef) or vegetables, usually in an earthenware pot called a ‘haandi’ or cast iron receptacle called a ‘karahi’ over a low heat.

As the cuisine became popular in Birmingham, it was named ‘balti’ because the ‘Brummies’ found it easier to pronounce than ‘karahi’. The earthernware pot gave way to thin pressed steel bowls with two handles, similar to a wok, about 22cm in diameter, which they called a 'balti'.

In its application seeking TSG status, BBA set out five characteristics of ‘Birmingham Balti’, which, it claimed, combined to “differentiate it from other curries whether cooked for both the indigenous UK population or Indian sub-continent palates”.

The five characteristics are:

1. For meat baltis, the meat is cooked off the bone rather than on the bone as in other curries in the traditional ‘one pot’ cooking of the Indian sub-continent;
2. The meal is fast cooked in a balti and cooked at high temperatures over a high flame very quickly.
3. Vegetable oil is used instead of ghee.
4. Dried spices are used, with the exception of the fresh ginger and garlic puree. Pre-prepared generic commercial curry pastes and powders are not used.
5. The meal is served in the thin pressed steel 'wok’, commonly known as the balti, in which it is cooked and traditionally eaten with fingers using naan bread.

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