British values and chicken tikka masala

Britain has a long-standing identity crisis.

Or maybe that’s a recent one. I suppose it depends on how long you consider long. But never mind the numbers. Ever since I moved here, politicians have been fretting over British values—what they are, who doesn’t have them, and how to get immigrants to adopt them.

Speaking as an immigrant, it’s hard to adopt British values when the British are hazy about what they are. Or maybe that’s what they should be. But hey, we do what we can. Or I do, so while the important people are trying to figure it all out, let’s talk about the important stuff, like British food. Because nothing runs deeper into a culture than food. You don’t believe me? Move to another country and see what you miss.

Irrelevant (and less than sharp) photo: Winter trees. I have got to get out there and take some more photos.

Okay, “nothing runs deeper” could be overstating the case. I’m using a time-tested way of making a point here, which is to exaggerate and toss in a bit of bullshit. But who’d notice if I didn’t point it out?

Let’s move on. After reading my post about fish and chips, Derrick J. Knight commented,

“I believe fish and chips has been supplanted by chicken tikka masala. Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, in 2001 claimed: ‘Chicken tikka masala 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 masala sauce was added to satisfy the desire of British people to have their meat served in gravy.’”

Cook wasn’t being original in claiming chicken tikka masala as the British national dish. The idea’s so prevalent in the national joke-o-sphere and all a person has to do is reach out and snag a version as it flits past, then claim it as their own.

The ponderous explanation of why it’s so gloriously British, however, I’m willing to credit to Cook alone.

So let’s talk about chicken tikka masala.

Before Britain voted to leave the European Union, a group of MPs tried to get the dish Protected Designation of Origin recognition from the EU. That would (or would have if the move’s been abandoned) put it on a level with champagne and parmesan–foods whose names are reserved to those products made in the region where they originated.

Their claim was based on a origin story that traces it back to Ahmed Aslam Ali, who is supposed to have invented chicken tikka masala in his Glasgow restaurant.

“We used to make chicken tikka,” he told the Telegraph—or possibly someone else, but it doesn’t matter because the Telegraph quoted him and that’s who I’ll attribute the quote to, “and one day a customer said ‘I’d take some sauce with that, this is a bit dry,’ so we cooked chicken tikka with the sauce which contains yoghurt, cream, spices.”

In other versions of the story, he tossed in a can of Campbell’s tomato soup, some spices, and a bit of yogurt. I was reading happily enough until I got to the can of tomato soup, at which I went into such a deep state of shock that I lost the URL that would’ve proved I didn’t make that up.

Applying for Protected Designation of Origin recognition meant that all hell broke loose. We’re quoting from the Telegraph again.

“Zaeemuddin Ahmad, a chef at Delhi’s Karim Hotel, which was established by the last chef of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, said the recipe had been passed down through the generations in his family [presumably without the canned soup, but what do I know?].

“’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. ‘It’s basically a Punjabi dish not more than 40-50 years old and must be an accidental discovery which has had periodical improvisations,’ he said.

“Hemanshu Kumar, the founder of Eating Out in Delhi, a food group which celebrates Delhi’s culinary heritage, ridiculed Glasgow’s claim. ‘Patenting the name chicken tikka masala is out of the question. It has been prepared in India for generations. You can’t patent the name, it’s preposterous,’ he said.”

In another version of the tale, “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 protoype of chicken tikka masala. In her book Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors, Lizzie Collingham takes an excellent look at the history of Indian food. She 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.’”

Take that, Robin Cook. And for the record, I have no opinion of my own about how appetizing or unappetizing the stuff is. I’m been a vegetarian for decades now and have never tasted the stuff.

Now, can we talk about what British values are and what it would mean to the country if I do or don’t adopt them? I’ll make us a nice plate of chocolate chip cookies to eat while we talk.

121 thoughts on “British values and chicken tikka masala

  1. I’ve never been to Britain before, and am quite curious to know how popular chicken tikka masala is over there. I’m guessing you can find it almost anywhere – from food courts to restaurants and pop-up fairs. Maybe it is considered as an every day dish over there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Indian restaurants are everywhere, even in small towns, and bottled Indian sauces are sold on supermarket shelves, so a tired cook could throw together a chicken tikka masala after work without much trouble. I’m less sure about fairs and food courts. I live in the country, a long way from the nearest food court, so any observations I make about them are pretty nearly worthless. Fairs? Possibly, but for some reason I see a lot of other foods sold at fairs–paella in particular.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. From years and years of hearing that phrase repeated ad nauseum, I have concluded that british values are either whatever the ‘values’ that the speaker wants them to be or a vague dissatisfaction about everything, that british trait of grumbling about the little things to anyone and everyone. So grumbling and tutting it is :D

    Really enjoying your blog

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Munk. I hadn’t thought of grumbling as a British value, just a trait, but maybe it is. (I’m not sure you were suggesting that it was one, but your comment brought that to mind.) Any time you try to define a country’s values, I suspect you’re doomed–and getting ready to define some group out.


  3. When I think of British food, I do not think of chicken, what was it…tikka masala, yes I had to go back and check to see what it was…Fish and Chips sounds more British, but then again so does Yorkshire pudding.
    Now chocolate chip cookies are just good no matter where you are from. I could go for some of those with a cup of coffee. No tea for this Canadian Mom!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh, the arguments that can ensue about food and provenance. Pizza seems totally American. Tomatoes and Italy go together like butter and bread. Except where did the tomatoes originally come from? As for fish and chips…guess where potatoes came from. And so it goes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ok, let’s examine the provenance of the traditional British Christmas mince pie – in particular the “mincemeat” filling. Firstly there’s no meat in the mincemeat; there used to be years and years ago, but no longer. It’s a traditional sweet filling consisting of raisins (not British), sultanas (not British), currants (not British), shredded suet (probably British), apple (might be British), almonds (not British), ground spice, cinnamon and nutmeg (none of them British), candied peel (not British), brown sugar (not British), brandy (not British).

      So on that analysis, virtually none of the filling in a mince pie comes from Britain.
      And yet the whole thing is most certainly quintessentially British, and has been around in some form or another for a long, long time.

      The point being of course that it isn’t where the ingredients come from that determines the provenance of a particular dish, it’s how you put them together.
      To which some people (non-Brits and some Brits) might say: why on earth would you want to put all that lot together in a pie?

      Liked by 3 people

  5. I was floored a few years ago when I visited England and Scotland to learn from several people that the national dish is chicken tikka masala. And not just at Indian restaurants, but hotel restaurants, cafes, and pubs. At a tiny pub in a small town in the Scottish Highlands, I expected to find fish and chips (or even bangers and mash, or the unbelievably horrid haggis), but all they had was chicken tikka masala. It was pretty good…. Times change.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I have no idea what British values are. Fair play? What does that mean, though?

    I’m underqualified to talk about chicken tikka masala, as I’ve been a vegetarian for almost a quarter of a century. I don’t recall ever having eaten it, but I have eaten fish and chips… and tomato soup. I know potatoes and tomatoes come from the New World, but I often feel that that’s a mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. According to the gentleman of the house, who is a connoisseur, the best Chicken Tikka Massala is to be found at The Stanhope Tandoori in South Shields, N.E UK.
    British values are officially as follows
    *the rule of law.
    *individual liberty.
    *mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.

    most of which the population do not tend to follow much these days. Sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had a grand old time researching British values for a different piece of writing, and the part of them that I loved was that no two politicians agreed on what they were. Which struck me as just fuckin’ perfect. When I get a moment’s sanity (or whatever passes for it), I’ll have to follow the link you’ve sent, because it’s a new one on me–not the list but the link.

      What I love about that mutual respect and tolerance etc. point is that it raises the question of whether we’re tolerant of those who aren’t tolerant. And what mutual respect means if you decide someone else isn’t being respectful.

      This stuff’s a quagmire if you start taking it seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow – I can demonstrate my ignorance by saying that I wouldn’t have guessed the British or India as having been the root of something with “masala” in the name. For definitive British, I always look for the word “boiled” – If I get in trouble with that other blogger, I won’t throw you under the bus, as it were, I’ll blame my maternal grandmother – that woman could boil anything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome to blame me–or try to–if you like. I promise you, I’ve had worse trouble.

      (I just googled masala to make sure I wasn’t making up my own definition. It’s “a mixture of ground spices used in Indian cooking.” Which does kind of blend all Indian cooking into one–and all Indian languages. But it’ll do the for our purposes.

      Now excuse me. I’m going to go boil some toast.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. uhm, values? so listen person who isn’t a he,,, well I am a he, but prefer not to be associated with that pronoun. what value is that? O, and I am hungry. but I too no longer eat most animals, no matter if they are questionable national dish of choice. uhm, my comment was about values… I do hope this UK chicken of choice has a veggie alternative…. or would that lesson the value? by the way, I know where you used to live and write and edit….

    Liked by 1 person

    • Do you? I must’ve left a few footsteps behind when I did my disappearing act.

      I don’t know that anybody’s offering a veggie tikka masala. Or that I much care. Indian food leaves a vegehoovian with so many choices that don’t involve a can of Campbell’s tomato soup.


  10. As per usual, the comments and retorts were as entertaining as the blog post itself. I’m Canadian and I love watching cooking shows (Oh, by the way, I’m not even touching the values thing) and, of course Jamie Oliver is one of my faves. I am constantly amazed by the amount of times he makes anything curry or kebabs. I keep thinking, have the Indians completely taken over British cooking?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I am very much against colonialism but my taste buds are happy that the whole empire thing exposed us to tasty food from around the globe and enabled curry to take over Britain. Please know that I am in no way suggesting that the horrors of the British Empire can be mitigated against by the wonderfulness that is curry. Incidentally, one of the things I have always enjoyed about food from India and neighbouring nations is that it works so well as vegetarian food. I often take curry recipes that state I should be using meat and just use veggies instead, that includes veggie tikka masala which my kids take for packed lunches in winter.

    As for British values, I truly have no idea what that means. Appropriating food from other cultures?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Tikka masala doesn’t have to be just chicken anymore. I get a paneer tikka masala (frozen, from Trader Joe’s, a US supermarket chain) that’s really good. They also have a vegan tikka masala, but my experience with vegan foods standing in for foods that are traditionally made with meat or dairy is uniformly bad, so I haven’t tried the vegan version.

    And I’m pretty sure the Campbell’s soup story is apocryphal. I mean, some people might make it with canned tomato soup, but good versions are not made with that. And believe me, I can detect the disgustingly sweet taste of Campbell’s tomato soup even in parts per million.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. It’s kind of ironic that people think of Fish & Chips as a traditional British meal when in reality it was invented by Italian immigrants during the 1800’s. That’s why I can’t understand Racism or Xenophobia- people who think that they’re “protecting their people and their culture” when in reality all of our ancestors came from different places and our Culture largely consists of other cultures that we appropriated.
    At the end of the day “British Values” seem to refer to either keeping everything the same or returning things to their former state. It’s a fear of change which is ultimately futile. Because change is inevitable and if we’re lucky, change is often good

    Liked by 2 people

    • The people who want to return things to the way they were, in my experience, want to go back not to the real past but to an imagined one. In the U.S., that tends to be the 1950s. I grew up there and then, and it was (as someone other than me described it) “A dull toothache of a decade.” That’s accurate enough for a six-word summary. I’m not anxious to go back.

      I researched fish and chips for a post a while back, and the BBC claims the fish element was introduced by Jewish immigrants from Portugal. There’s disagreement about who combined the fish with the chips, and where, but according to one source Italian immigrants noticed the popularity of the combination and set up shops around the country. As usual, the sources I found are full of contradictions, so I wouldn’t claim that to be the definitive history, but it does sound like they’re multiply multicultural.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Our favorite restaurant in the new neighborhood is Thai. I think the folks running it are actually from Thailand. It’s rather wonderful finding more and more Thai food in out of the way places. Quality, of course. Having said that, I can’t think of a single smart-ass remark to add to it. Must be the weather.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good weather softens the brain. It’s a known fact. That’s why you can’t think of a smart-ass remark. Here in Cornwall, it’s been raining since 1983 and our brains are very solid. Which may or may not be a good thing. We can’t tell, but when we shake our heads, they rattle. It has a certain charm.

      Has the weather been good out your way?

      I could wish for a Thai restaurant nearby. It won’t make it happen, but what the hell, I think I’ll wish for it anyway.


  15. Well there is a lot of controversy about this dish. It tastes very good. Many versions used canned tomato sauce and full cream. Others coconut milk and fresh tomatoes. One could be British, the other Indian.
    Who knows?
    It just tastes good.

    Liked by 1 person

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