In 2001 the then Foreign Secretary – Robin Cook – declared that Fish & Chips was no longer Britain’s national dish, but rather it is now Chicken Tikka Masala:
“Chicken Tikka Massala is now a true British 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 Massala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.”
Chicken Tikka Masala is now so popular that it is estimated that 23 million portions are sold each year in restaurants, while one ready meal manufacturer produces ten tons of it each week for sale in supermarkets.
Perhaps it can be traced in part to Britain’s imperial past, but there are now around eight thousand ‘Indian’ restaurants in Britain and every town has at least one ‘Indian’ restaurant – the town where I live has no less than seven, serving a town of only eighteen thousand inhabitants. The phrase ‘going for an Indian’ (or in rhyming slang ‘going for a ruby’) is not uncommon on a Friday evening.
Britain’s ‘Indian’ restaurants are actually, for the most part, run by Bangla Deshis or Pakistanis, with a very few specialist regional Indian restaurants.
The first dedicated ‘Indian’ restaurant can be traced back to 1809 in Portman Square in London, just north of Oxford Street, in London’s West End but this was short lived. The modern wave of ‘Indian’ restaurants can be traced to the Veeraswamy that opened in 1924 in London’s Regent Street (also in the West End) – the first real up-market ‘Indian’ restaurant.
It was at Veeraswamy incidentally, where the link between curry and lager was born – the Crown Prince (Axel) of Denmark and his wife visited the restaurant in June 1924. The prince was said to enjoy lager with his curry and arranged for a case of ‘Carlsberg’ to be available at the restaurant for his visit. He further gave orders for a case to be delivered to the restaurant each year.
More downmarket, the ‘Halal’ restaurant, opened in Whitechapel (close to Brick Lane) in the 1940’s and still claims to be the oldest ‘Indian’ restaurant in the ‘East End’.
The origins of Chicken Tikka Masala itself can be traced back to the court of the Mongol conqueror Babur who conquered northern India in 1526, his court was famed for its decadence and lavish feasts. He was wary of choking on chicken bones and insisted that all bones be removed from any meat, his chefs chopped the meat into bite sized pieces (Chicken Tikka) and cooked them in the tandoor oven.
The first tandoor oven arrived in Britain in the 1950’s and food thus cooked was significantly dryer than the ‘wet’ curries that had been served until then. Legend has it that a diner, on being served Chicken Tikka cooked in a tandoor demanded “where’s the gravy?” and the chef obliged by using a sauce based on Campbells tomato soup. The most likely location, at least the most often quoted, for this invention is Glasgow, where several restaurants lay claim to the invention.
The first recipe for Chicken Masala was published in 1961, and the first Chicken Tikka Masala ready meal was introduced in 1983.
The rest as they say, is history – or more accurately – home economics.