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60 years of Chicken Tikka Masala

Hindustan Times | ByVijay Dutt, London
Oct 21, 2007 10:54 PM IST

In a ringing affirmation of the rise of multi culturalism, this phoney Indian dish is celebrating its 60th anniversary in Britain this month, reports Vijay Dutt.

It is about as Indian as 'Chicken Manchurian' or 'Sour Hot Soup' are Chinese. The latter, among the most popular dishes on the menu of any Chinese restaurant in India, have never been heard of in China. So too, 'chicken tikka masala' Britain's favourite 'Indian' dish, is by no means Indian; it is unknown to Indian restaurants or dinner tables or palettes.

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Yet, in a ringing affirmation of the rise of multi culturalism, this phoney Indian dish is celebrating its 60th anniversary in Britain this month. It is the country's most popular dish - mind, not just most popular Indian dish - according to Food Service Intelligence. Robin Cook, the former British foreign minister, has hailed it as "Britain's true national dish", relegating fish and chips to second place.

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It accounts for a quarter of the total turnover of 2.5 billion pounds of all the 9000 odd 'curry houses' in Britain, and won the Best in Britain Award (BIBA) for best dish in 2002. The organisers of the National Curry Week have estimated that if all the portions of chicken tikka masala consumed annually in the country were stacked on top of one another, they would form a tower 2770 times taller than the Greenwich Millenium Dome.

The origins of the dish lie shrouded in mystery. If an apocryphal story is to be believed, it was invented by a Bangladeshi chef to please a demanding British customer. The first Bangladeshi restaurants - calling themselves 'Indian restaurants' of course - opened in Britain in the 1940s, serving mostly Punjabi cuisine, specially Chicken Makhani, Chicken Tandoori, Chicken Tikka. At one such restaurant a Sylheti chef served a customer a dry Chicken Tikka dish he had taken some pains over, and was expecting to be appreciated for. Instead the pukka sahib summoned him and hollered: 'Where's the gravy?' In disgust, the chef took the dish back into the kitchen and simply emptied a can of tomato soup into it, adding a few spices as well. When he brought back the altered dish, his customer was delighted. Thus was 'Chicken Tikka Masala' born.

For long it was looked down upon by connoisseurs. Mahendra Kaul, who founded Gaylords in London in the 1950s, recalled TN Kaul, then India's deputy high commissioner in Britain, laying down a condition when invited for the opening: he would not come if chicken tikka masala was on the menu. But just as a thrashy Bollywood film can attain iconic status once it proves a blockbuster, chicken tikka masala has had the last laugh, marching triumphantly ahead, silencing all its critics.

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