An Homage to Chicken Tikka Masala

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21st November 2012 was the first Homage Day in praise of Chicken Tikka masala, a truly British invention and one of the most popular dishes in the country.

 
The flagship dish of Britain’s acclaimed ‘national cuisine’ boasting a huge 14.6% of the sales of the curries consumed, on average, in the restaurants and homes of the United Kingdon every day of the year. Chicken Tikka Masala, or CTM as it was affectionately dubbed by writer Colleen Grove in ‘Spice n Easy Magazine’ in November 1994, is one of those culinary fables that lends a touch of intrigue and excitement to an already exotic cuisine.
The interest in CTM is quite unbelievable and it is estimated that it forms the subject of well over 60% of all enquiries directed at us from the media both in Britain and internationally.

Amit Roy was quite correct to observe that the dish does not hail from India and that it was specifically created to appeal to the British palate by some very astute restaurateurs. This much is not in doubt but when one moves on to the history of the dish, fact becomes fiction and depends on just who one talks to.

No ‘Indian’ chef seems to have produced any real evidence that he or she first invented the dish and it is commonly thought that its invention came about almost by accident. Journalist Peter Grove and restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab created an urban legend when they claimed as a joke that it was created when a Bangladeshi chef produced a dish of traditional Chicken Tikka only to be asked “where’s my gravy?” The response was, supposedly, a can of Campbell’s cream of tomato soup and a few spices and the ‘masala’ element was born. Top food writer Charles Campion refers to CTM as “a dish invented in London in the Seventies so that the ignorant could have gravy with their chicken tikka”. Several chefs have made claim to the invention of CTM but none with any evidence or witness support so the mystery will have to remain. The descendents of Sultan Ahmed Ansari, who owned the Taj Mahal in Glasgow claim with absolute conviction that he invented it in the late 1950s although this competes with numerous other similar claims of invention.The tandoor, which boosted tikka sales, had not even arrived in Britain at that time, having only been introduced for the first time to the Indian restaurant, Moti Mahal in New Delhi in 1948.

Other claimants for the invention of CTM include Zaeemuddin Ahmad, a chef at Delhi’s Karim Hotel, which was established by the last chef of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, who says the recipe had been passed down through the generations in his family.

“Chicken tikka masala is an authentic Mughlai recipe prepared by our forefathers who were royal chefs in the Mughal period. Mughals were avid trekkers and used to spend months altogether in jungles and far off places. They liked roasted form of chickens with spices,” he said.

Rahul Verma, Delhi’s most authoritative expert on street food, said he first tasted the dish in 1971 and that its origins were in Punjab. “Its basically a Punjabi dish not more than 40-50 years old and must be an accidental discovery which has had periodical improvisations,” he said..

Alternatively another claim says Chicken Tandoori Masala was invented by a famous Bengali music composer, Moslehuddin, when working in the restaurant trade in the city of Birmingham, in a restaurant called the Houseboat in the mid 1970′s.

The story goes that he was unable to find long term employment in the U.K. and had to work in the restaurant trade. While there he was could not let go of his creativity and decided to try out several new dishes that would get a positive response from his clientele. In one such creation he took chicken tikka cooked in a clay oven and mixed it with chicken curry, making it milder than normal by adding liquid from yogurt and tomato puree or sauce. He got such a positive reaction from this dish that he refined it further and had it placed as a permanent item on the menu.

It wasn’t long before other restaurants in Birmingham, of which there were many, started to copy the menu item. Regulars at the “Houseboat” and later at the “Rajdoot”, the “Shah” on Broad street and then at Mosley’s on Broad street, which were all restaurants where Moslehuddin offered Chicken Tikka Masala in the 1970′s and 1980′s, continued to demand the succulent dish according to his wife Nahid Niazi.

Whatever the various claims, the Moti Mahal can be seen as the true origins of CTM in its basic form of Butter Chicken. Lala Kundan Lal Gujral first set up in Peshawar in 1920 but came to Delhi in 1947 to set up Moti Mahal. He worked with a local man to produce the first restaurant version of the tandoor and invented tandoori spice mix for tandoori chicken -ground coriander seeds, black pepper and mild red pepper. Called Murg Makhani in Hindi, Butter Chicken originated in the 1950s at the Moti Mahal restaurant in Old Delhi. Famed for its Tandoori Chicken, the cooks there used to recycle the leftover chicken juices in the marinade trays by adding butter and tomato. This sauce was then tossed around with the tandoor-cooked chicken pieces and presto – Butter Chicken was ready! The leftover dish appealed to Delhites and was quickly lapped up by the rest of the world.

RECIPE FOR :KEBAB BUTTER MASALA (Courtesy Monish Gujral of Moti Mahal)

Ingredients for the Kebabs-

Minced lamb- 500 gm
Egg, beaten- 1
Onion , finely chopped- 1
Green chillies, finely chopped- 2
Red chilli powder- 5 tsp
Ginger, chopped- 1tsp
Garam masala- 5 tsp
Salt to taste
Green coriander chopped- 2 tsp
Lemon cut into wedges-1

Method to cook the kebabs-

Combine all ingredients except last two in a bowl
Divide the mixture equally in 16 balls . Skewer each ball and with wet hands make 2″long kebabs along with the skewer
Put the skewers in the tandoor or preheated conventional oven pre set at 350 deg cfor 7-8 minutes
Take them out brush them with oil turn around and cook again
Take out from skewers and keep aside.
These also can be served as a snack -arranged on a platter garnished with chopped coriander and lemon wedges

For the masala-

Refined oil- 2 tbsp
Onion chopped- 1
Ginger-garlic paste 2 tbsp
Cumin powder- 1 tsp
Coriander powder- 1 tso
Turmeric powder- 1tsp
Red chilli powder- 2 tsp
Garam masala- 1 tsp
Salt to taste-
Green chilli sliced- 2
Tomato puree – 300 ml
Lemon juice- 15ml
Butter-50gm
Fresh double cream- 100 ml
Green coriander chopped- 1 tbsp

Method for the masala-

Heat the oil in the wok
Add onions and sauté till golden brown
Stir in ginger garlic paste
Add spices and salt
Now add the seekh kebabs and stir for 3-4 minutes
Add green chillies , tomato puree and lemon juice and stir for few minutes
Now add butter . As the butter melts add cream and remove from fire
Serve hot garnished with chopped coriander

So impressed was India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru by Kundal Lal’s dishes that Moti Mahal became a permanent fixture in all his state banquets. Legend has it that when former Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev was asked what he liked about India, he replied, ”Taj Mahal and Moti Mahal”. When the Shah of Iran came on a state visit to India, the Indian Education Minister Maulana Azad told him that coming to Delhi without eating at Moti Mahal was like going to Agra and not seeing the Taj Mahal.

After Nehru, his daughter and then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi continued the relationship with Moti Mahal. So fascinated was she by the food that at the wedding of her younger son Sanjay Gandhi, Moti Mahal specialties dominated the dinner. Kundan Lal Gujral, a larger-than-life figure whom people still remember for his immaculate Pathani suits, handlebar moustache, love for good whisky and the favours he dispensed because of his proximity to Indira Gandhi, would personally serve his guests. His wife would begin each day grinding the masalas, a closely guarded secret, that went into the signature dishes. His grandson Monish has revived the fortunes of Moti Mahal in recent years and now boasts a group with 72 outlets.

An advertisement in a programme for the London Palladium promoting Cinderella starring Cliff Richard in 1966 by The Gaylord in Mortimer Street featured what was thought to be the first tandoor dishes in Britain. Mahendra Kaul, now involved with Chor Bizarre and Viceroy Brasserie in London, sent ‘the tandoor’ to USA for the World’s Fair a few years earlier before loaning it and his staff to an unamed restaurant of a friend in United Kingdom who was on hard times, before installing it in The Gaylord. However, information from archived documents at the famous Veeraswamy in London show the tandoor was in use at the restaurant as early as 1959, some ten years before it became widely known in Britain.

Top restaurateur Amin Ali, owner of The Red Fort and Soho Spice in London’s Soho remembers serving CTM when he first arrived in London in 1974. A lowly waiter at the time he remembers wondering just what the dish was.

Certainly one family to have tangible benefits from the success of CTM is that of Sheik Abdul Khalique who owns The Polash in Shoeburyness which opened in 1979. His father, Haji Abdul Razzah, returned to Bangladesh in 1985 having made sufficient profit to build The Polash Hotel in Sylhet and a Mosque and The Polash Sheba Charitable Trust were added after his death. The family firmly claim their fortunes are largely down to CTM, the mysterious Indian/British hybrid.

CTM was introduced to Waitrose by G.K.Noon in 1983 when he was still in the United States and by the end of the Millennium it was generally acknowledged as the most popular single dish in Britain.

“Chicken tikka masala is now Britain’s true national dish, not only because it is the most popular, but because it is a perfect illustration of the way Britain absorbs and adapts external influences. Chicken tikka is an Indian dish. The masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy” Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, April 2001

For something that is so popular with the public and with the restaurateurs who make their living from it, Chicken Tikka Masala is very much a Cinderella of culinary creations. Very few recipes for CTM appear in the plethora of Indian Cuisine cookbooks that have appeared over the last twenty years and Alan Davidson’s Oxford Companion to Food does not even consider it deserving of a listing. Indeed, such are the passions it generates in the industry, that many top chefs originally refused to cook or serve it due to its complete ‘lack of authenticity’.

However, exist it does and demanded it is, so just what is Chicken Tikka Masala? Tikkas are the bite-sized chunks you cut chicken into and these are marinated and cooked in the tandoor. The masala part is where things become difficult. Masala means spices but no exact recipe for these seems to exist. CTM can be yellow, red, brownish or even green and can be very creamy, a little creamy, chilli hot or quite mild. In restaurants it tends to be a creamy sauce – not too hot; a bit tomatoey; very smooth and, all too often, quite sweet and very red (although food colouring has now been replaced by natural ingredients such as beetroot). In supermarkets, once you have by-passed the masses of CTM pizzas, filled pancakes, kievs, pies, microwave rolls and so on, you come to the chilled and frozen ready meals which range from mild onion gravy to saffron cream to velvety vermillion.

Created on the spur of the moment under pressure it may have been but, as a culinary concept, the basic dish, if not the name, already existed. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the earliest known recipe for meat in a spicy sauce with a bread appeared on tablets found near Babylon in Mesopotamia, written in cuniform text by the Sumerians as long ago as 1700 B.C.

The North Indian dishes Murg Masalla and Murgh Makhni have been part of the Indian chef’s repertoire for many years. The Bombay Palace Cookbook by Stendahl in 1985 listed a recipe for Palace Murgh Kari including yoghurt, tomato paste and heavy cream and Niru Gupta’s ‘Everyday Indian’ (1995) lists Murgh Rasedar, which includes most of the required ingredients, including cream, tomatoes and onions.

The shape of things to come may have been a recipe for Shahi Chicken Masala in Mrs Balbir Singh’s ‘Indian Cookery’ published in 1961.

Mridula Baljekar is one of the few cookery writers to have included CTM in her bestselling ‘Complete Indian Cookbook’ (1993) including food colouring and tomato puree as well as double cream and almonds. Chef Mohammed Moneer introduced yet another ingredient with half a cup of coconut milk instead of cream.

It seems that the ingredients generally include yoghurt, tomatoes, cream and spices as well as the chicken pieces and if you have found a version that suits you then stick to it. The Spice n Easy article in 1993 endeavoured to produce the definitive recipe from forty eight versions on offer where the only common denominator was the chicken, and came up with a ‘standard’ version.

Chicken Tikka Masala was most certainly invented in Britain, probably by a Bangaldeshi chef, based on Butter Chicken and is so popular it is even being served in some hotel restaurants in India and Bangladesh and around the world.

It does not come from the Raj or the kitchens of the Moghul Emperors, but millions of people enjoy it every year and perhaps that is all the pedigree it needs!

First chef from India to be invited to Le cordon Bleu to demonstrate in Paris. Monish is credited with the trailblazing turn-around of Moti Mahal, from being a small but iconic presence in Delhi, to becoming a multi-national corporation that is well on its way to defining how the world eats Indian food. A traditionalist, Monish has remained true to the signature dishes that made Moti Mahal a legend, while reinventing the dining experience into one that is exciting and avant garde to suit modern sensibilities.

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