Chicken Tikka Masala

As a Chef my Culinary Taste buds over the years have become very diverse one of my favorite Indian dishes is the succulent red creamy chicken with the perfect blend of spices and flavors –  called Chicken Tikka Masala, is my idea of food worthy of a Hindu God . I can eat it any day, any time. This dish helps me in times of needing comfort food , when I miss India food  the most, because it ‘almost’ represents everything India is to me what I have come to k now . Spicy, colorful, comforting and regal. However, the more I read about it (thanks to my curiosity of finding the history of everything we eat), I realized, that the most popular Indian dish in foreign restaurants might not be Indian after all! Most Indians eat strictly a vegetarian diet so how did Chicken tikka become so prominent in India’s Culinary Culture .

To fathom the extraordinary fable of Chicken Tikka Masala, we should travel to 5000 years ago when tandoor clay ovens were invented. Locals were beginning to raise chickens at the same time as it was the oldest first domesticated farm animal and realized both made an awesome combination. But the small bite sized pieces which we now call ‘Tikka’ came into existence- thanks to the nitpicking of an emperor, Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in South Asia was so sick (or afraid) of choking on the chicken bones, he ordered his Punjabi chefs to remove the bones before cooking the meat in the tandoor. The resulting delicacy was called – Joleh, Persian for Tikka.

Over the course of time, the recipe was improvised to include marinating the chicken in yogurt and spices. Chicken Tikka became a popular dish with all classes throughout the Mughal Empire.

The tale gets puzzling from then on. We are not sure of what the status of Chicken Tikka was during the mutinies and the struggle for independence. It is understandable why nobody really bothered to chronicle what happened to Chicken Tikka while the country was fighting for freedom. During and after the independence movement, the British had exported a lot from their life in India – Curries, bungalows and of course the Kohinoor diamond. Somehow, the tandoor oven didn’t catch their fancy then, and Chicken Tikka just didn’t make the cut. But, in the 1950s there was a flood of immigration from the Indian subcontinent to UK and Indian restaurants mushroomed all over the country.

It is commonly believed that our ‘Chicken Tikka Masala’ originated in an Indian restaurants run by Bangladeshi chefs. According to folklore, (this is truly an oral History tale) So the story in Europe goes a British gentleman sometime in the 1960s, decided his Chicken Tikka was too dry and demanded a better dish. The chef, either out of wild inspiration or final desperation tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, sprinkled some spices and added a dollop of yogurt to the dish. 450 years after Babur’s reign, this hybrid dish came into being in Glasgow and was christened Chicken Tikka Masala.

Some also argue that this is not the real story. They contend Chicken Tikka Masala originated in British India where its spicy precedent was toned down to suit British palates. They also claim that Butter Chicken was the first prototype of Chicken Tikka Masala. In the book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, takes an excellent look at the history of Indian food. The book  has an entire chapter dedicated to Chicken Tikka Masala and writes, according to food critics, that it, “was not a shining example of British multiculturalism but a demonstration of the British facility for reducing all foreign foods to their most unappetizing and inedible forms”.

Regardless of its mysterious origins – Chicken Tikka Masala enjoys its special place in the food kingdom. Today, there are more than 50 versions of this dish and the only common ingredient is but of course, chicken. Nearly, 15% of all curries sold in Britain is the Chicken Tikka Masala. It is one dish I recommend to anyone who asks me about Indian food. I don’t make it at home, but maybe its charm lies in indulging its richness in a restaurant, right where it was created.